True Religion According to Isaiah 58

Note to non-Ridley College readers: I have produced this piece as part of an exercise for my study of the book of Isaiah. The intention is to try and contextualize a portion of that book for a particular audience, drawing out the passage’s significance for people today. After posting their work, students taking the subject have to examine and comment on their classmates’ efforts.

This is a blog post-cum-article, such as you might find in an online publication like The Gospel Coalition, or a print publication like The Melbourne Anglican.

***

I didn’t agree on all that much with the late biblical scholar, Marcus Borg. His Jesus seemed more like a 1960s radical than a first-century Palestinian Jew; his doctrine of Scripture was a little too low for my taste (Borg probably would have said that the Bible is the product of various communities that were confronted by the ineffable power of the numinous); and his understanding of biblical politics – such as they are – bore an uncanny resemblance to modern-day progressivism.

But one area in which I found Borg to be quite insightful was his insistence on the deep, abiding connection between one’s relationship with God (or “the holy”, as Borg might have termed it) and a commitment to justice in the world. For him, the two went hand-in-hand; anything less was a betrayal of true religion. Reading Marcus Borg at this point was to be reminded afresh of a fundamental truth that had become lost amidst hurly-burly of everyday life.

***

Isaiah 58:1-14 perfectly distils this theme, one that is found repeatedly throughout Scripture. In the space of a few verses, the prophet denounces a narrow, restrictive kind of religion, concerned mainly with empty ritual and ceremony. In its stead, he places a full-bodied spirituality front-and-centre, one that is focused on both God and neighbour – a religion that is both “vertical” (in relation to the Creator) and “horizontal” (in relation to one’s fellow image-bearers).

For Isaiah, labouring for justice is not an adjunct or an add-on; rather, it is a manifestation of true religion. In response to the complaints of God’s people – who petulantly ask why they have bothered fasting and humbling themselves, for no apparent gain (v.3) – the prophet exposes their hypocrisy. They might have prided themselves on their holiness, but as the succeeding verses demonstrate, their vaunted religiosity was hollow, a sham. Their fasts ended in conflict (v.4), whilst the fleeting moments they gave to God (v.5a) paled into insignificance next to the large swathes of time spent living for themselves and ignoring the plight of the poor (vv.6-7). I like the way Paul Hanson, an OT scholar, summed up the predicament of Israel at this time:

“[They were a] community where those who regarded themselves as the most religious had converted religion into private acts of study and ritual, thereby leaving the entire realm of social relations and commerce under the dominion of ruthless, self-serving exploitation”.

Quite so. The Israelites of Isaiah 58 had allowed a corrupt form of their religion to colonize the far loftier requirements of devotion to Yahweh, confining their obligations to discrete acts of piety. Meanwhile, those weightier matters of justice and liberation were forgotten about, left to wither away like the poor wanderers among them.

What God commands for his people in Isaiah 58 is a “fast” that conforms to, and reveals, his deeper intentions for those who call themselves his disciples. It is a “fast” from injustice, oppression and exploitation, and studied neglect of the downtrodden. It is, indeed, a “fast” that aims to satisfy the painful longings of the empty and broken. If the people do these things, Isaiah says, their light will break forth like the noonday sun (vv.8-10), and God shall truly be their delight. They will, in other words, reveal the light (=truth) of God (cf. 2:5), all the while being genuinely reconciled to their Creator and King.

***

This isn’t simply an OT concern – part of that dreaded law that Christians can now do away with. Jesus and the writers of the NT (most of whom were Jews) were deeply committed to the ongoing relevance of the OT Scriptures for the spiritual and moral formation of disciples in the early church. Indeed, the NT is suffused with this ethos, for both it and its predecessor are grounded in the fundamental belief that every single person is a precious image-bearing being, deserving of justice and respite from exploitation.

Examples are too numerous to list, but a few will make things clear. Just think about the way Jesus excoriates the “selective righteousness” of the religious leaders, who assiduously tithe their spices, but neglect the foundational matters of justice and compassion (Luke 11:42). Or what about his announcement in Luke 4:16-21, where he quotes from Isaiah 61, proclaiming himself to be the fulfilment of the anointed one, who would liberate the captives and loose the chains of injustice? In what could be seen as a programmatic statement, Jesus stands in the synagogue, and describes his mission as one marked by the coming of deliverance in a great act of Jubilee. And let’s not forget a NT writer like James, who says in 1:27 that one of the characteristics of “pure religion” is to look after orphans and widows (read: the vulnerable and weak). If one is to be a genuine worshiper of God, devotion to those who have fallen prey to the harsh vagaries of this world is non-negotiable.

For Christians, then, the values and principles enshrined in a passage like Isaiah 58 aren’t irrelevant, or a part of some by-gone era superseded by the coming of grace; they are part of the warp and woof of holy living, now fulfilled in the person and ministry of Jesus himself. The “light” of Isaiah 58, which he said would dawn with renewed commitment to justice, is seen in Jesus’ light, which pushes back the darkness (John 8:12). But it’s also not dissimilar to the light that Jesus’ disciples are meant to shine, by which they reveal in their good works the greatness and holiness of God (Matt 5:16).

***

The words of Isaiah 58 are bracing indeed. I’m not suggesting, of course, that anyone reading this is guilty of exploiting the poor, or of actively perpetuating oppression. But we need to take these words, echoed in the voices of Jesus and the first disciples, with a great deal of gravity. Moreover, we need to allow the God who inspired this passage then to use it now – searching our hearts for signs that we, too, may have slipped into conventional, narrow, or formal religion. I know that as I read these verses, I stand exposed as someone who all too easily falls into the trap of empty ceremony – thinking that my church attendance, for example, or my Bible reading is enough. And I cannot help but recognize that like the Israelites of this text, I am also guilty of “turning away” from other human beings (Isa 58:7c), of shutting my eyes to the misery and the brokenness around me. We may not be responsible for another’s exploitation; but how often do we ignore the plight of that person, or determine to remain uninformed about the travails of the oppressed?

How does one respond? It’s true that we live in a culture of self-interest, marked by materialism and a spirit of acquisitiveness. Such is the culture’s strength that it can be difficult to fully embrace the vision of Isaiah 58. But there is hope. Although each of us may have fallen short of these ideals, let us also remember that God is able to do exceedingly more than we can imagine. He is more than capable of re-making us; indeed, that is the whole point of being welcomed into his redeemed community. Moreover, he knows we are dust and ashes, and prone to following that which is merely convenient or comfortable. His grace is all-abounding, and is more than sufficient to forgive us our failings, and equip us for a life spent in service of others.

This is God’s promise. But what else should we do to live as people who manifest the spirit of Isaiah 58? Well, it is important to remain consistent in prayer. It’s unlikely God will change us without some openness on our behalf. Prayer avails much, and if we think we are lacking when it comes to a commitment to the poor and vulnerable, then it’s incumbent upon us to petition God for transformation. He will do much for us – and within us – but that comes with a receptive heart, made all the more so through prayer. Next, we might think about our posture: how do we position ourselves in this world? Do open ourselves up to opportunities to assist and support those who broken or downtrodden? Or do we confine ourselves to acts of devotion and piety that allow us to remain walled-off from the discord in this world? Along with prayer, then, a re-orientation of our goals, attitudes and way of life may well be necessary. It requires a conscious, intentional change – at least at some level – of one’s habits and daily rhythm. Such a posture means being alive to the possibility that God might use us in even the mundane moments of life. It entails deliberation about how we can reach out beyond the merely conventional or socially acceptable to those who are suffering. I think we’d be surprised by the opportunities that present themselves, right before our eyes.

Finally, there are practices, which are closely allied to our basic stance towards the broken. I’m not suggesting that we all need to abandon our current lives, move to a developing nation, and minister to people living in a slum. Practising justice and loving-kindness could be as simple as reaching out to a neighbour you know facing financial hardship; or befriending someone at church who (as it were) comes from the “wrong side of the tracks”; or writing letters to your local MP on a raft of justice issues (asylum seekers languishing on Manus Island, abortion, or what have you). These are but a few examples.

We all face the cacophony of modern-day life, and we may often be distracted by all it has to offer. However, even in the midst such a dazzling array of amusements and consumer delights, there exist opportunities – even in the most “ordinary” of circumstances – to put the ethos of Isaiah 58 into action. In that way, we shall show ourselves to be God’s true people, following in the footsteps of his Son.

***

One final point before rounding off. I have focused mainly on what Isaiah 58 says about one’s commitment to justice. But remember what I said in reference to Marcus Borg: he talked of the indivisible bond between that commitment and devotion to God. If it’s easy to restrict one’s piety so that it has absolutely no effect on the world around us, then it’s also easy to think that social concern and a thirst for justice are enough. However, Isaiah 58 doesn’t promote a secular political programme. Rather (and as Marcus Borg recognised), it offers a distillation of the two halves of true religion, both of which are necessary for it to remain genuine. Here, I cannot help but end with another quote from Paul Hanson:

“Acts of loving kindness toward the neighbour do not exhaust the life of faith. They culminate in worship. The life of compassionate justice comes to its most sublime expression in the delight one finds in the Lord (v.14)…Isaiah 58 states God’s will with a clarity that wins the assent of all that is true within us…[evoking] our deepest sense of joy with the invitation to delight in the Lord through worship purified by loving-kindness”.

Amen.

Advertisements

Judging Kavanaugh in the #MeToo Era

Introduction: What to Do about #MeToo?

In what could be deemed a statement of secular heresy, I must confess to being somewhat ambivalent about the #MeToo movement. One certainly can’t deny its role as a driver for widespread social change, much of it for the better. This, of course, goes beyond the exposure and condemnation of a handful of famous predators. Aided by the amplifying power of social media, #MeToo has succeeded in fundamentally shifting the conversation regarding women’s rights. It has revealed hidden attitudes, even prejudices, concerning gender relationships and the role of women in society. In many instances, those attitudes deserved to be unmasked and repudiated, such was the toxic power they possessed. #MeToo has given otherwise timid, silenced individuals the platform – the voice – to combat habits of mind that sustain a conspiracy of shame and studied ignorance. To the extent that the movement has widened the scope of justice and invigorated the ongoing project for women’s rights, it should be applauded.

But like so many mass movements, #MeToo has been prone to a slew of excesses. Righteous fury has frequently given way to uncontrolled outrage, whilst the commendable idealism with which the phenomenon began has at times mutated into a mob’s crusade against even the smallest of perceived infractions. As the notion of unforgivable transgressions has become increasingly capacious, individuals with but a distant, tangential connection to some of these heinous acts have been dragged into the movement’s orbit. Just ask Ian Buruma, who until recently edited the salubrious The New York Review of Books. He left that position after a #MeToo-inspired imbroglio – not because he raped a woman or abused his position of power for the sake of sexual gratification, but because he showed insufficient sensitivity to victims by publishing an author who’d been credibly accused of such crimes. Undoubtedly, Buruma’s decisions – including some of the things he said in a follow-up interview – represented quite serious lapses in judgment. But it is another thing entirely to argue from this that he should have fallen on his professional sword, particularly as he himself has never been accused of the kinds of acts that sparked #MeToo in the first place.

Even where an accusation concerns the perpetration of a sex crime, the need for substantiation has sometimes been curiously lacking. The role of social media – which can transform the smouldering embers of a single controversy into a raging brush-fire of online outrage – cannot be overstated here. A claim of abuse, fired off like a salvo from one’s Twitter account, appears to be a sufficient basis for indictment. Just as alarmingly, they have led to the ruination of more than one career: a single, uncorroborated allegation is all that is required to destroy another person’s employment prospects. For all the celebrated good it has accomplished, #MeToo has also provided some with the cloak of unimpeachable veracity. Invoking the movement’s imprimatur, they consider themselves exempt from deference to basic moral norms to which people generally adhere; mere accusations are elevated to the status of unquestionable truth, whilst minor deviations from the movement’s accepted narratives are met with a wave of anathemas. In such a hostile, feverish climate, how is an accused person meant to defend himself without appearing to be self-serving? How are others meant to call for restraint and sober judgement without being labelled apologists for predatory behaviour?

Accused and Accuser in the #MeToo Era

These concerns were sheeted home recently as I monitored the acrimonious congressional hearings for the next justice of the United States Supreme Court. For the previous few weeks, those proceedings had grown ever more rancorous, as an already-fierce partisan contest degenerated into the basest kind of tribalism – aided in no small measure by the deepening cultural heft the #MeToo movement enjoys. Donald Trump’s latest pick for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, has lately been assailed with allegations of (attempted) sexual assault during his days as a hard-drinking, hard-partying youth. Kavanaugh’s eventual confirmation notwithstanding, those allegations formed the foundation for a relentless campaign against his nomination – a campaign that seemed intent, not merely on trying to block one man’s ascendancy to the highest court in the United States, but on utterly destroying his reputation in the process. Of course, if he is guilty of the crimes of which he has been accused, then a shattered reputation would be well-deserved. But that’s precisely what has been at issue: whether or not Kavanaugh actually committed such heinous acts.

I don’t think it will ever be possible to know what transpired 30-odd years ago, when Kavanaugh’s first accuser, Dr Christine Blasey Ford, claimed that he attempted to rape her at a house party. At this point in time, we only have the testimonies of the victim and her alleged assailant; tearful accusations, on the one hand, and indignant denials, on the other. Although her testimony was powerful and arresting, Blasey Ford’s claims remain uncorroborated: the four people she said were present at the time of the incident (including Kavanaugh) have all publicly said that they have no memory of the event. Moreover, the credibility of her accusations has been brought into question, a fact that should give any reasonable person pause. Short of a confession from Kavanaugh or a recantation from Blasey Ford, it’s unlikely the impasse will be conclusively resolved. Such is the paucity of information, I think personal agnosticism and the presumption of innocence (unless otherwise demonstrated) is probably the least tenuous position one can adopt with respect to Judge Kavanaugh. And, given the high hysteria with which this saga has been garlanded, I also think it’s the most mature.

But in an era that is being shaped by the burgeoning zealotry of the #MeToo movement, agnosticism is seen as tantamount to a betrayal of abuse victims. Meanwhile, pleas that we cling to the foundational principles of Western jurisprudence are contemptuously dismissed as the purest sophistry – a cynical ploy, designed to protect abusers and further humiliate victims. For Kavanaugh, being accused under #MeToo’s spectral presence is enough; the mere appearance of a complaint, whatever its evidentiary value, is now adequate for many pundits, politicians, commentators, and “Believe Women” activists to condemn an individual and shred his public standing. The movement’s presence has been glimpsed in the gaggle of protesters outside Congress damning Kavanaugh as guilty. Its ethos was echoed in the words of actor and activist, Rose McGowan, who urged commentators to discard the word “alleged” when talking about this and other incidents. And its strictures were obediently aped by journalists calling on Kavanaugh to be banned from coaching his daughter’s basketball team. As Kavanaugh himself conceded, his reputation has been irrevocably tarnished already as a result of these accusations. If anyone doubts the seriousness of that rather grim prospect, we might recall the sage (if ironic) words of Iago, the primary antagonist in William Shakespeare’s play, Othello:

“Who steals my purse steals trash…But he that filches my good name/Robs me of that which not enriches him/And makes me poor indeed”.

Regardless of what happens from here – even if Kavanaugh were to be completely exonerated – this is unlikely to change. The stench of a sexual assault allegation is simply too strong to shed completely. More about that anon.

Undermining the Western Heritage

It was disturbing, then, to see a person being subjected to the most salacious attacks, even as those leading the assault (and here, I do not include Blasey Ford herself) seemed content to press on in the absence of any concrete facts whatsoever. His opponents appeared unwilling to entertain even the theoretical possibility that he may not have committed the crimes of which he is being accused. Instead, they appeared singularly devoted to his irretrievable destruction. But what we are witnessing transcends the experiences of one man. Kavanaugh is a condensed symbol of the kind of frightful turn the culture, in the US and elsewhere, is taking. The #MeToo movement cannot claim sole credit for this unwelcome state of affairs, of course (uncorroborated accusations were being made against people long before it began). We shouldn’t ignore, for example, the role that an increasingly ugly political discourse has played in this affair. Still, #MeToo has fostered the conditions required for such practices to take on an unexceptionable, even virtuous, air. Uncritical acceptance of the intrinsic sanctity of an accusation – and with it, the implicit canonisation of the accuser – is now demanded as a matter of justice. The ritual denigration of an accused man is likewise thought to be necessary if the baleful forces of an oppressive patriarchy are to be kept at bay. In the face of such beatifying authority, how are the normal processes of justice and truth meant to operate?

I for one can’t see that they can. #MeToo’s transmogrification into a kind of secular religious movement has meant the inadmissibility of doubt or scepticism. Nothing less than unalloyed faith is permissible; anything falling short of this standard is an impediment on the road to gender-based justice. Kavanaugh’s current experience is simply one manifestation of this wider phenomenon. It’s also one reason why all of us – conservative and progressive, religious and secular, male and female – should fear the consequences if some of the darker legacies of #MeToo are allowed to weave themselves into the cultural fabric. The values underpinning the movement’s more extreme edges are fundamentally at odds with the basic principles of Western jurisprudence I referred to earlier. Indeed, as the columnist Victor Davis Hanson recently wrote, what we are observing right now,

Involve[s] a strange inversion of constitutional norms:…hearsay is legitimate testimony; inexact and contradictory recall is proof of trauma, and therefore of validity; the burden of proof is on the accused, not the accuser; detail and evidence are subordinated to assumed sincerity; proof that one later relates an allegation to another is considered proof that the assault actually occurred in the manner alleged; motive is largely irrelevant;…and the individual allegation gains credence by cosmic resonance with all other such similar allegations.”

The presumption of innocence, the burden of proof, the slow, unprejudiced weighing of evidence – these principles, for which many people have fought so valiantly, lie at the heart of the Western legal system. And quite rightly, too, for they form the main bulwarks against the tyranny of the accusing finger, or the vengeful braying of the mob. Without them, people are at the mercy of rumour and hearsay, held hostage by the awareness that the mere presence of an accusation – however fanciful, however scurrilous – is enough to destroy them. Of course, Brett Kavanaugh is not on trial (at least not literally), and those principles don’t apply in quite the same way. But they are not simply the preserve of court houses and lawyers. Rather, they are part of the unwritten code of decency that governs modern life; the unseen lineaments marking out a civilized society. The more dogmatic representatives of #MeToo, fuelled by an eschatological fervour, are working assiduously to ensure those principles are abandoned.

Beneath these crucial tenets rests a fundamental belief in reason as the best tool to which we have recourse to determine the truth of the matter. It’s not perfect, by any means. All too often, we have allowed reason to succumb to hysteria, prejudice, or plain old bias. But by developing the basic architecture of rational discourse, Western culture has hit upon the surest means of forging a harmonious union between a person’s truth claims and the reality to which they allegedly point. It is also all we possess as a society if we want to ensure that justice – where the innocent is acquitted and the guilty is condemned – is truly, genuinely, dispensed. To do so, however, requires a measure of doubt and intellectual reserve when examining allegations leveled against another person. This isn’t to cast aspersions on a woman’s personal credibility; nor should anyone pretend that questioning the searing testimony of an alleged victim of abuse wouldn’t be deeply painful. But that basic position is unavoidable if we are to ensure a rigorous commitment to truth.

This cannot be underscored too frequently: the “Kavanaugh affair” represents a deliberate and widespread repudiation of crucial features of our cultural heritage (and by “our”, I mean those of us who live in, and enjoy, the fruits of Western society). Its replacement would see identity or outward sincerity become the primary criteria by which truth is to be adjudicated; automatic credence given to an otherwise unsubstantiated allegation; and reason and restraint being ruthlessly supplanted by emotion and hysteria.[1] It would be, in other words, the antithetical rejection of those cultural boundary markers that afford protection to those accused of even the gravest of crimes. If their erosion is permitted, then a terrible precedent will have been set. Again, if someone of relative power and privilege can be ground down in this way on the basis of unproven allegations (and let’s not kid ourselves that for Kavanaugh, it would end simply with his being sent back to the Court of Appeals), where does that leave ordinary people? If this way of dealing with one’s opponent is legitimized in one field (i.e., accusations of sexual assault), why should we think it won’t spill over into other domains of life? It’s partly for these reasons that I am deeply reluctant to heed voices on both the Left and the Right who argued Kavanaugh should have withdrawn his candidacy for the Supreme Court. To have done so would have represented a capitulation to forces that shroud their basic illiberalism in the robes of empathy and compassion.

The Ghost of Theophanous

Some reading this piece may still be unpersuaded. It might even be tempting to reject it as a disingenuous exercise aimed solely at preserving male privilege. But everything that I have discussed has been borne out repeatedly in the concrete experiences of people whose lives have been utterly ruined – even ended – by the corrosive power of unfounded accusations. Many such examples could be cited; one in particular comes to mind, and it concerns a little-known Australian politician named Theo Theophanous.

A decade ago this month, The Age, a Melbourne newspaper, published an explosive story apparently exposing Theophanous as a rapist. It detailed an interview with an anonymous woman who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by Theophanous in his parliamentary office. Four days later, the same newspaper ran a damning profile of Theophanous, painting him as a manipulative and lecherous charlatan. Bear in mind that Theophanous had not been charged with any crime, or even interviewed by police. No formal complaint had been made. But a major daily news outlet nevertheless decided to run an uncorroborated story (on its front page) in the most lurid detail. Within days of these twin pieces, Theophanous stepped down from his position as a minister in the Victorian state government. About a year later, he left parliament, his ministerial career obliterated.

A subsequent court hearing, in which the magistrate dismissed a case against Theophanous at the committal stage, found that the woman who levelled the accusations against the former politician was an “entirely unreliable” witness. Her account of the alleged rape was so riddled with inconsistencies as to be simply unbelievable. It’s little wonder that sex crimes detectives required 15 months – and 15 attempts – to help the woman produce a statement that could pass even the lowest threshold of plausibility. Furthermore, she had a history of making false claims: first, in an effort to claim social security; and second, by dishonestly accusing a former boss of sexual harassment. When one of the interviewing detectives was asked in court why he’d been so credulous, despite knowing all of this, he said: “It’s incumbent upon us to believe what complainants tell us…” I doubt that a more perfect rendition of one of the #MeToo movement’s guiding principles could be found.

The Australian newspaper interviewed Theophanous about six years after the ordeal. Despite being completely exonerated, he said he was still haunted by what happened. He and his wife have been able to move on, but even today, the toxicity of a rape accusation can still succeed in warding off potential employers. One charity declined to accept his application to sit on its board, saying that although it knew him to be innocent of the charges, it did not want his presence to be a distraction. Life has regained some semblance of normality for Theo Theophanous and his wife, but the torment of that experience has left an indelible mark. The “filching” of his reputation and character (as Iago observed) has impoverished him in a way that the theft of mere possessions cannot do.

Of course, my point is not to unfavourably compare the anonymous woman in this story with Christine Blasey Ford. For one thing, Blasey Ford exposed herself, bravely appearing before a Senate committee to testify as to what she claims occurred. And unlike Theophanous’ accuser, Blasey Ford at least appears to be someone of credible character (whatever one thinks of the content of her testimony). But his experience dramatically illustrates what can happen when an unverified accusation of rape or sexual assault – even one as laughably implausible as the allegation that felled him – is leveled against another person. It also shows that not every allegation can, or should, be believed; Theophanous’ accuser plainly failed to meet the minimum standards of credibility. Contrary to what some activists might think, then, women (just as much as men) are prone to deception or confabulation. A reasonable, sane society would acknowledge this fact – not because women are particularly duplicitous, but because everyone is capable of falling into error or sinning against truth.

Theo Theophanous underwent the humiliation of being labelled a sexual predator some years prior to the genesis of #MeToo. I fear, however, that the cultural landscape has changed dramatically. If left unchecked, the expansion of these perverse attitudes all but guarantees (and even legitimizes) the weaponization of hearsay and gossip as a means of inducing social death. Although the epicentre of this phenomenon lies in the United States, there is no reason to think it won’t also make its presence felt in other Western societies. Indeed, one might say that it already has. A well-rehearsed litany of repercussions would likely be witnessed as a result: the ostracism of the accused and their families from polite society on the basis of a single allegation; the creation of pariahs out of anyone publicly associated with them; the corruption of even the ordinary rhythms of life, eroding trust and civility between individuals; and the deepening tribalization of our politics. This potential future has already been glimpsed, fuelled by the unholy alliance of a metastasized #MeToo movement and an ugly, hyper-partisanship. The “Kavanaugh Affair” is a harbinger, even if the man at the heart of this tawdry saga has survived his brutal confirmation hearing. But for those who have gleefully watched his possible demise, or who thought that yet another powerful lecher was being justly exposed (even in the absence of all confirming evidence), I can only ask: has it been worth the cost?

[1] And no, I am not making some coded insinuation about the differences between men and women with that last warning.

Isaiah’s David and Conservative Scholarship

This is an expanded version of a college essay I wrote recently for my theological studies. It concerns the conservative claim that the book of Isaiah anticipates a divine Davidic king. 

Introduction

It has long been a mainstay of classical and conservative Christianity that the book of Isaiah explicitly anticipates a divine-human king who would take his rightful place on David’s throne. Resting their case on key “royal” texts, commentators in this tradition have argued for the Isaianic expectation of an idealized Davidic heir sharing the everlasting glory – the “ontological status” – of Yahweh himself. Invariably, he is identified with Jesus Christ.

I will examine the merits of this claim in what follows, pursuing it in conversation with traditionalist interpreters. In particular, I will argue that whilst Isaiah clearly envisions a superlative Davidic king – that much is uncontroversial – this object of prophetic longing remains an exclusively human figure. Even if the key redemptive individuals populating the book can all be interpreted within a Davidic-messianic framework, they, too, are pictured as essentially human. Ultimately, the expected Davidide occupies a subordinate position within the broader Isaianic portrait of Yahweh’s unmatched sovereignty. Arguments to the contrary either exceed or misconstrue the evidence.

I shall divide my essay into three, unequal parts, focusing primarily on the more contentious question of the Davidic king’s alleged divinity. First, I’ll critically explore relevant passages in Isaiah 1-39, demonstrating that even where they do expect a royal Davidide, they do not envision him as divine. Second, I shall survey Isaiah 40-55, concentrating on the infamous “servant” passages with which some scholars buttress their claims.[1] I’ll argue that whether or not these commonly-cited texts anticipate a Davidic-messianic figure, they also fail to show that he bears godhood. Finally, I shall briefly sketch a positive case for understanding the expected Davidide as a human agent within the book’s theology of divine kingship.

Isaiah 1-39

Since Isaiah 1-39 provides most of the putative data for a divine Davidide, I shall devote a larger share of my critical attention to this section. Here, we must contend with four main passages when discussing the Davidic king’s ontological status: 4:2; 7:14-18; 9:1-7; and 11:1-10.

Isaiah 4:2

Isaiah 4:2 is sometimes seen as the first Isaianic glimpse of a future, divine Davidic figure. Motyer argues that references to the “Lord’s Branch” and “the fruit of the land” reflect the coming king’s dual nature, bearing both a divine origin and human parentage.[2] “Branch” may well have messianic overtones (cf. Jer 23:5; Zech 3:8), but the point of its/his being “of” the Lord is to emphasis God’s gift of fruitfulness; the “Branch” would therefore be Yahweh’s instrument of redemption.[3] Interpreting “fruit of the land” as a veiled indication of the apparent Davidide’s human/earthly ancestry seems manufactured: a natural reading of the text doesn’t warrant such recondite interpretations, but rather suggests the joy of survivors returning to a newly bountiful landscape. Claims that mere earthen terrain would never be described with terms such as “pride” and “glory” also ignore biblical references to the contrary (e.g., Jer 3:19; Dan 11:16,41).[4]

Isaiah 7:14-18

Those who think Isaiah anticipates a divine Davidide tend to interpret Isaiah 7:14-18 in a straightforwardly predictive way – i.e., as a promise fulfilled with Christ’s miraculous birth, in whose person divinity and humanity were embodied (Matt 1:23). Advocates argue that this connection, along with the child’s name (“God-with-us”),[5] constitute strong indications of both Davidic lineage and divine origin.

Admittedly, “Immanuel’s” identity (v.14) is difficult to determine, and interpretations are legion.[6] Whether a Davidic-messianic understanding of the passage is possible,[7] contextual factors favour a certain immediacy regarding the prophecy’s ambit: the demise of the Syro-Ephraimite kings, whom Ahaz “dread[ed]”, would occur before the child reached the age of conscious moral choice (v.16; cf. vv.2,7-9). This implies the sign would come to pass within the lifetime of Isaiah’s audience.[8] Traditionalist interpretations, hewing to a disputable model of prophetic fulfilment that not even the NT consistently follows,[9] are constrained to mute the clear historical markers anchoring Isaiah’s oracle.[10] Claiming Isaiah adopts a “concertina” approach to history[11] – essentially bypassing the intervening seven centuries – represents an exercise in special pleading, and would have rendered the prophetic sign meaningless to his contemporaries.[12] Nothing explicit in the text warrants such exegetical contrivances.[13] The apparent force of the child’s virginal mother is thus negated; assuming v.14 denotes a specific woman,[14] it’s equally possible that her maidenhood was something she possessed at the time, without entailing supernatural conception. Finally, “Immanuel” is better understood as a theophoric name: less a reflection of one’s divinity than of his status as a sign of God’s enduring presence in the midst of historical crisis.[15] I shall further discuss claims concerning theophoric names below.

Some argue for the Immanuel-child’s divinity by joining Isaiah 7:14ff with 9:1-7 and 11:1-10 via subsequent references to “Immanuel” (8:8,10). However, this assumes two things: (a) that 9:1-7 and 11:1-10 contain hints of divinity in their portraits of the coming Davidide; and (b) that these texts speak of the same individual as 7:14ff, linked as they allegedly are by way of “Immanuel”. I will critically examine (a) below. As for (b), there is reason to question the identification of the variously-mentioned figures. True, 7:14ff and 9:1-7 both speak of the birth of significant children. But attempts to link these passages – where “Immanuel” apparently refers to an exalted figure, whose identity becomes progressively clearer – fail to reckon with probable changes in the term’s usage; whereas “Immanuel” clearly refers to an individual in 7:14, it might better be seen as a cry of hope (or grief) in 8:8,10.[16]

Isaiah 9:1-7

Unlike Isaiah 4:2 and 7:14ff, 9:1-7 and 11:1-10 unambiguously expect a Davidic king: references to David’s throne (9:7) and Jesse’s “Branch/stump” (11:1,10) bear sufficient witness to this fact.[17] However, the contentious – and thus, crucial – question remains the nature of this longed-for potentate.

Numerous commentators have looked to Isaiah 9:1-7 for evidence of a future divine king, so apparently crystalline are the references to his glorified, transcendent status. Set against the background of a coming era of deliverance (vv.1-5), some argue the passage is a prophetic word concerning a divine-human saviour who will sit on David’s throne, even as he is identified with God himself. His alleged role as universal redeemer testifies to his lofty status, and commentators use vv.1-5 to buttress the broader claim that Isaiah 9:1-7 anticipates an exalted figure of cosmic scope. Verses 6-7, which speak of a remarkable infant and his accession to David’s throne, are the lynch-pin. On this view, the child’s “givenness” means that in addition to having human parentage (“born”), he is also of divine stock.[18] The complex of honorific names in v.6 apparently bears this out, for their application to the Davidic king is titular evidence of his divinity. “Wonderful [Counsellor]” (v.6a) may mean something like “supernatural”, reflecting the unique abilities of this supposedly more-than-human figure.[19] “Mighty God” (v.6a) is likewise said to denote godhood, since elsewhere, it is clearly applied to Yahweh (10:21).[20] Furthermore, proponents have suggested that “Everlasting Father” (v.6b) represents the king’s eternality and divine paternity, of which the passage’s reference to his kingdom’s endless duration (v.7) is a corollary.[21]

At first glance, the evidence marshalled from Isaiah 9:1-7 appears compelling. But several cogent objections can be levelled against it. First, interpreting references to “born” and “given” (v.5) as implying the divine-human nature of the coming king represents an artificial demarcation (cf. 4:2). The child’s “givenness” denotes the divine mercy that stands behind his birth, with the one acting as sign to the other.[22] Second, the titles of v.6 – said to be overt references to the king’s divinity – are better understood as theophoric names: ceremonial titles borne by a ruler, describing the God in whose name he reigned and on whose behalf he acted.[23] This didn’t mean the person in question was divine. Other OT texts show the (e.g.) relationship between Yahweh and Israel’s kings could be described in filial terms (God’s “son” [Ps 2:7]), without this indicating ontological likeness.[24] Hence, vv.6-7 don’t imply the Davidic ruler will bear godhood; rather, his actions and status point beyond themselves to the ultimate reality undergirding his rule.[25] Deferrals to 10:21, then, are moot: although that verse does refer to Yahweh, the application of “Mighty God” in 9:6 is a sign of God’s salvific power.[26] These titles serve to underscore his greatness, wisdom, and paternal concern – not the ruler’s per se – in redemption (v.7d).[27]

Third, references to an everlasting kingdom do not, by themselves, imply the eternality of the Davidic leader. More likely is the argument that they echo 2 Samuel 7:14ff, which speaks of the endless duration of David’s kingdom (cf. Ps 72:17).[28] Nothing in that passage suggests the equation of everlasting kingship and divinity.[29] Finally, there is reason to think the general tenor of 9:1-7 implies a ruler of a more limited (though nonetheless idealized) stature, counterposing the “manifest failures of the Ahaz regime”.[30] Some persuasively argue that God is consistently pictured as exclusive redeemer here, thereby challenging traditional readings that “inflate” the Davidic figure’s role.[31] The passage concentrates on Yahweh’s accomplishments (v.7d), denoting God as deliverer – not the subsequently-identified Davidide. “He” (v.1) refers to Yahweh, logically implying that Israel’s God is also the primary subject of vv.2-5 (cf. Isa 2:5). This strikes a better balance between the “gloom” of divine abandonment (8:22) and the “light” of divinely-ordained redemption.[32] Moreover, 9:1-7 doesn’t apply the term “king” to the wonder-child, possibly as a way of training attention on Yahweh’s kingship.[33] The Davidide is honoured, not in himself, but as an obedient agent within God’s redemptive programme.[34] If sound, this re-appraisal weakens a key plank in the classical-conservative case for a transcendent, uniquely glorified Davidic individual.

Isaiah 11:1-10

What of Isaiah 1:1-10? Does it anticipate a divine Davidide? Again, an affirmative answer exceeds the evidence. Motyer suggests the construction of v.10 denotes the origin of Jesse’s genealogical line: the Davidic “Root” is also the “root” from which Jesse and his progeny sprang, such that he is both Messiah and Creator (i.e., divine).[35] But the verse reads simply enough, especially when viewed in light of the preceding context (10:33-34): a “root” from Jesse’s line will grow and bud, despite the apparently lifeless stump that exists.[36] The passage does envision a lofty, idealized figure, whose advent is associated with the return of exiles and a new era of shalom-like harmony (vv.6-10). However, this needn’t be interpreted in “superhuman” terms.[37] Verses 1-2 depict someone acting as Yahweh’s deputy, discharging his unique duties only with the liberal assistance of divine endowment.[38] Meanwhile, 11:11ff affirm God’s superintendence over Israel’s deliverance/restoration. The Davidic figure may be God’s faithful vice-regent – offering another contrast to the corruption of contemporary elites (cf. 1:10) – but the basic thrust of this passage is one of deference and subordination, not (ontological) equality (cf. vv.2a-3b – “…will delight in the fear of the Lord”).

Isaiah 40-66

Whereas Isaiah 1-39 contains clear references to a Davidic ruler, there is scant mention of David in Isaiah 40-55 (cf. the heavily contested 55:3-5).[39] This should come as no surprise, since so-called Deutero-Isaiah focuses so closely on Yahweh’s kingship. Nevertheless, by concentrating on the “servant” texts punctuating Chapters 40-55, some maintain that Isaiah continues to envision a royal Davidide.[40] Interesting parallels obtain between the servant and (e.g.) Isaiah 11:1-10,[41] but citation of claimed textual evidence for the view fails to appreciate that much of the data parallel references in non-Davidic contexts (and are therefore insufficient to establish the traditionalist’s position), or remain ambiguous in their import.[42] It’s questionable whether the servant is consistently portrayed as an individual, much less a Davidic one (e.g., Isa 41:8; 43:10; 44:1; 49:3, implying a servant-Israel nexus).[43] Even where an individual appears to be envisaged, the passages in question lack unambiguous references to his Davidic heritage, akin to those one finds in Isaiah 9 and 11. The prospective exegete should therefore be cautious in eliding these two figures.[44]

Isaiah 49 and 53

But suppose the servant of Isaiah 40-55 is an ideal Davidic king; is there evidence to suggest this section contains an expectation of his divinity? Some scholars have argued so, leaning on a clutch of key verses from Chapters 49 and 52-53. I shall examine them in reverse order, starting with the latter text first. According to several commentators, Isaiah 52:13-53:12 contains several allusions to that figure’s deity: the servant will be exalted to a position of honour on par with God (52:13); the Lord’s “bared arm” constitutes a kind of incarnation (53:1);[45] and the servant’s agential role suggests a “perichoretic” relationship between him and Yahweh, with even incipient Trinitarian overtones.[46] These references are rather opaque, to say the least, and are better understood in more prosaic terms. That the servant is Yahweh’s instrument – his “bared arm” – can be explained as yet another instance of the master-servant/king-agent relationship (cf. 9:1-7; 11:1-10).[47] On this view, the servant is likely a human figure doing his Lord’s bidding. And “high and lifted up” (52:13) likely denotes a reversal of status from shame to honour (cf. 53:10b-12a), not “ontological identity”.[48] As for the assertion that we have here a statement of proto-Trinitarian thought, the most one can say about it is that it is entirely gratuitous.

Traditionalist interpretations of Isaiah 49:1-7 also over-egg the exegetical pudding. Motyer, for example, asserts that “strength” (v.5c) implies the servant uniquely embodies divine power[49] – despite plain readings of the text which suggest that he “merely” benefits from Yahweh’s preservation amidst his arduous mission. Likewise, although others have argued that the servant actually incarnates divine salvation (v.6d), this, too, can be understood in instrumental terms – i.e., the servant acting on behalf of his God, functioning as a “tool” (cf. v.2, where the servant is likened to a weapon in Yahweh’s hand). Finally, the servant may well act as God’s “salvation” (v.7), but a more straightforward interpretation lies close to hand – namely, that he is an agent prosecuting the redemptive agenda of the One who sent and empowered him. To be sure, an agential role is logically consistent with the possession of deity. However, it certainly does not demand deity, and one is firmer textual grounds by eschewing that understanding.

Complementing these rejoinders are certain features which suggest that if the servant is an individual, then he is an “ordinary”[50] human one. Although it is true that Isaiah 49 depicts him in exalted terms (cf. 11:1-10), it is also clear that he relies upon the generating and sustaining power of God. That in itself may reflect a (metaphysical) distinction between the servant and the One he obeys. He is formed, we are told, by Yahweh in the womb (49:5), which suggests a beginning in time. Eternality, however, is one of the hallmarks of true deity (cf. 43:13), and is a quality that separates Yahweh from his creation. Of course, it might be possible to argue that this doesn’t necessarily preclude pre-existence; Christians, after all, believe that Christ is both the eternal logos (cf. John 1:1) and the son born to a first-century Jewess. But, of course, the author of Isaiah was no Christian. Moreover, the traditionalist will find no comfort in (e.g.) Isaiah 7:14ff: as I have already suggested, that text does not predict the miraculous birth of some kind of divine-child, but instead denotes the impending advent of an infant who will constitute a sign of God’s presence. The present passage says nothing beyond the fact that the servant was, like every other human individual, fashioned by the One who is the ultimate source of all life. This speaks of a mundane being, who is constrained by the limits of materiality.

One may also cite Isaiah 49:4, which refers to the servant vainly exhausting himself – yet another indication of finitude, and thus, of humanity without divinity (cf. 40:28c). Although he is called to be a light for the Gentiles (v.6b) – a statement that could be construed as a claim to share in the divine light (cf. 2:5) – it is telling that he does not possess this intrinsically; that Yahweh will “make” him so implies that whilst he carries divine truth, he does not embody it by nature (cf. 58:8,10, where light is clearly associated with members of Yahweh’s covenant community). None of the above points is decisive in isolation, and one cannot definitively rule out some articulation of the servant’s deity. However, they constitute a cumulative case that is relatively strong. Isaiah 49:1-7 seems, then, to offer a picture of someone who remains deeply dependant on, and humbly committed to, the God who has commissioned him. Everything in the passage suggests, once more, ontological difference – not identity – between Yahweh and the servant. Traditionalist arguments, like those associated with previous passages, go beyond the data.

Isaiah and Kingship: Yahweh’s Matchless Rule

The foregoing analysis has suggested that claims concerning Isaiah’s anticipation of a divine Davidide outstrip the evidence. But can a constructive case be made for understanding the Davidic king as a solely human figure? I believe so, and its possibility lies in the implications of one of the book’s key themes: Yahweh’s unmatched supremacy – his “isolated sovereignty” – against all other claimants.[51]

Isaiah is suffused with references to this basic belief, so crisply distilled in the oft-repeated phrase, “Holy One of Israel” (e.g., 41:14,16; 43:3; 54:4; 60:14). Captured in that term is the notion that Yahweh is both metaphysically “other” and morally spotless. The prophet discovers this when he is confronted with a vision of God, he is overwhelmed by a transcendent monarch of unparalleled majesty (6:1; cf. 63:15); the thrice-declared fact of his holiness simply underscores this reality. That experience is the starting-point for “so-called Isaianic ideology”,[52] buttressing the book’s unrelenting critique of attempts to exalt oneself as Yahweh’s equal.[53] Isaiah’s fundamental outlook explains the denunciation of the Babylonian king in Isaiah 14:12-15, whose actions represent the unlawful arrogation of Yahweh’s unique position of glory. The general tenor of Isaiah 13-23 is one of God’s sovereignty in judgment, climaxing with a re-assertion of this king’s universal lordship via the execution of his devastating wrath upon the earth. Even the bridging narrative of Isaiah 36-37 is underpinned by the conviction of Yahweh’s sole deity; Hezekiah’s prayer, for example, affirms Yahweh as Lord – in contrast to mute, impotent idols – and the only one who may be called the “living God” (37:14-20).[54] That contrast, of course, is demonstrated in dramatic fashion, as the Assyrian army is completely vanquished (37:36-38).

The theme of Yahweh’s reign culminates with the book’s extended “lawsuit” against the great pantheon of idols in Chapters 40-55, a section that has been noted for its lofty, uncompromising monotheism.[55] Much of this polemical output serves to establish Yahweh’s status as unrivalled potentate and Israel’s only redeemer (e.g., 42:5-9). Yahweh repeatedly contrasts his royal glory with the lifeless “gods” of pagan devotion (40:18-25; 46:1-12). He alone commands the otherwise unchecked forces of nature; he alone foretells the future and ensures his plans prevail. Not only is he Israel’s king (43:15); he is God eternal, supreme over creation – including those elements used to create the idols he so resolutely opposes.[56] As Yahweh himself emphatically insists, he “will not yield” his “glory to another”, or his “praise to idols” (42:8) – precisely because no one else can be positioned as his equal (cf. 64:5). The final, eschatological picture of “all flesh” engaging in pure worship of the one, true God (66:18-22) perfectly complements – and indeed, fulfils – the lines of thought found in Deutero-Isaiah. Tellingly, there is no mention in that text of a supposedly divine-human Davidide (as we might expect if Isaiah consciously anticipated such a figure); he seems to have faded from the scene entirely. At the conclusion of history, the prophet implies, Yahweh alone will stand supreme.

In view of these proposals, it would seem that no matter how revered the coming Davidic king is, one shouldn’t claim more for him than Isaiah’s theological predilections will allow. Given the book’s unyielding emphasis on Yahweh’s matchless sovereignty (cf. 63:15) – and the consequent gulf that exists between him and all other things – it makes more sense to understand the Davidide as an honoured (though non-divine) individual, acting as Yahweh’s subordinate. Several of the passages surveyed bear this out. Isaiah 9:1-7 has shown that the (human) Davidide operates as an agent within, and as a result of, the cosmic Lord’s redemptive enterprise. His stature and titles signal God’s sovereign power, even if he himself remains a mundane figure. Isaiah’s broader theological horizons make the distinction between these two actors thoroughly intelligible. Yahweh’s glory is a unique and intrinsic possession (cf. 42:8); by implication, the Davidide simply does not have it. And on the assumption that the subject of Isaiah 49:1-7 is a Davidic figure, the aforementioned features of that oracle – features that seemingly imply an ordinary human being – would become doubly comprehensible. Not only do inner textual considerations invite the reasonable conclusion that the servant is non-divine; Isaiah’s basic theological foundations appear to rule out anything more. Conversely, we may ask whether a prophetic work so committed to God’s singular deity would then obscure its message by introducing a being who, as it were, “blurs” the relevant metaphysical categories of divinity and humanity (cf. 2:22). If my analysis is correct, there is not only reason to doubt traditionalist interpretations of the longed-for Davidide; a positive framework also exists that strongly encourages an affirmation of his exclusive humanity.

Conclusion

We must conclude. As I have sought to demonstrate, both intra-exegetical considerations and broader theological concerns suggest that Isaiah anticipates a human Davidic king, and nothing more. Even the book’s unambiguous references to an expected Davidide fail to yield compelling evidence for his divinity. Instead, the passages examined here indicate someone who occupies an inferior – though still important – position within the sovereign God’s salvific economy. The honour accorded him is reflective of the ubiquitous pattern of veneration that ancient kings enjoyed. On the other hand, it’s difficult to resist the conclusion that traditionalist/conservative claims in this field sometimes stem, not from a dispassionate exegesis of the text, but from scholarly ingenuity in service of particular theological aims. As I have sought to demonstrate, those who argue that Isaiah expects the coming Davidide to bear divinity are frequently compelled to resort to some rather tenuous interpretive strategies. This isn’t to say that those living this side of the Incarnation shouldn’t read these texts through a Christological lens. That remains a legitimate hermeneutical move. However, Isaiah reveals to us an undimmed belief in Yahweh’s ontological uniqueness, such that expectations of a divine-human king – a transcendent son of David – are questionable at best.

[1] The attentive reader will notice that I have not included Isaiah 56-66 in my analysis. This is so for two reasons: putative references (e.g., to a royal Davidide/divine figure) are extremely rare and/or ambiguous; and, where a relevant text may be found, it is significant only to the extent that it echoes language already found in earlier sections of Isaiah (e.g., 53:1//63:5).

[2] Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993), 65, 67. For an ancient rendition of this argument, see Bede, “Homilies on the Gospels 1.4”, cited in Stephen A. McKinion (ed.), Ancient Commentary on Scripture: Isaiah 1-39 (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), 36.

[3] Childs argues that because “Branch” is pegged to “the Lord” – not David or Jesse – the reference should not be seen as messianic-Davidic, but rather as a denotation (along with 4:2b) of Yahweh’s work in bestowing upon the land “abundance and fecundity”. See Brevard Childs, Isaiah (OTL; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 36.

[4] John D.W. Watts, Isaiah 1-33 (Revised) (WBC 24; Waco: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 75.

[5] Calvin argues that “Immanuel” is a sure indication that Isaiah was predicting the coming of the (divine) Christ. See John Calvin, Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah, Vol. 1; trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 248-249.

[6] Childs, Isaiah, 68-69. See Andy Abernethy, The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom: A Thematic-Theological Approach (NSBT; Downers Grove: IVP, 2016), 122, who cites some scholars arguing for Immanuel’s identification with Hezekiah. Other candidates include Isaiah’s son, or a collective interpretation (i.e., mothers calling their sons “Immanuel” as a profession of faith). Abernethy himself argues that the identity of the child is unimportant.

[7] Goldingay, like many others, notes that there is nothing explicit about the Immanuel child being of Davidic origin. See John Goldingay, The Theology of the Book of Isaiah (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 140. Watts (Isaiah 1-33, 140) suggests that “no record exists of special attention being given to Isa 7:14 in pre-Christian Judaism”.

[8] Watts, Isaiah 1-33, 136, 141. Laato argues for an immediate historical fulfilment. See Antti Laato, Who is Immanuel? The Rise and the Foundering of Isaiah’s Messianic Expectations (Abo: Abo Academy Press, 1988), 172-173.

[9] E.g., Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 (Matt 2:18). See James M. Hamilton, Jr., “‘The Virgin Will Conceive’: Typology in Isaiah and Fulfillment in Matthew 1:23”, in Built Upon the Rock: Studies in the Gospel of Matthew, eds. Daniel M. Gurtner and John Nolland (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 233-236, 242-247, for a summary and defence of a typological (rather than predictive) approach to the NT’s understanding of prophetic fulfilment.

[10] Herbert M. Wolf, Interpreting Isaiah: The Suffering and Glory of the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 91.

[11] As Motyer (Isaiah, [TOTC; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999], 78) does; idem, The Prophecy, 87.

[12] As even John N. Oswalt (The Book of Isaiah – Chapters 1-39 [NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986], 206-207) admits, despite his adherence to the conservative position; cf. Marvin E. Tate, “King and Messiah in Isaiah of Jerusalem”, R & E 65 (1968): 412.

[13] Other exegetes (e.g., John Calvin and Gary Smith) have posited that the child of v.14 is different from that of v.16. I can only say that this seems terribly forced, and undermines the integrity of the passage. See Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah, 250; Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 1-39 (NAC 15A; Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2007), 215.

[14] Note the definite article preceding “virgin” in v.14, which could imply a specific, concrete individual (cf. Smith, Isaiah 1-39, 200).

[15] Abernethy, The Book, 122-123; Greg Goswell, “Royal Names: Naming and Wordplay in Isaiah 7”, WTJ 75 (2013): 106.

[16] See Wolf, Interpreting, 94; idem, “Solution to the Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah 7:14-8:22”, JBL 91 (1972): 455; Watts, Isaiah 1-33, 154. Cf. G.C.I Wong, “Is ‘God with Us’ in Isaiah VIII 8?”, VT [no number] (1999): 430, who interprets the cries of “Immanuel” negatively. This does not affect my broader point. Smith admits that Isa 7:1-17 lacks the messianic “flavour” of 9:1-7. See Smith, Isaiah 1-39, 215. Porter notes a number of other differences between these figures. See Frank Chamberlain Porter, “A Suggestion Regarding Isaiah’s Immanuel”, JBL 14 (1985): 20.

[17] See Goswell, “The Shape of Messianism in Isaiah 9”, WTJ 9 (2015): 108.

[18] This interpretation has a venerable history. See Motyer, Isaiah, 89; idem, The Prophecy, 102. See also Carl Umhan Wolf, “Luther on the Christian Prophecy, Isaiah 9”, Lutheran Quarterly 5 (1953): 390, for a summary of Luther’s views on this point; Augustine, “Sermon 187.4” in McKinion, Ancient, 70.

[19] Motyer, Isaiah, 89.

[20] Motyer, Isaiah, 89; Smith, Isaiah 1-39, 240; Wolf, Interpreting, 97-98.

[21] Interpreting the names in Isa 9:6 as connoting the Davidide’s deity has a long and venerable history. A quick glance at McKinion, Ancient, 70-76 reveals that many of the luminaries of the ancient church – from Justin Martyr, to Ambrose, and Augustine – held this view. Although I depart from such an august array of witnesses, I do not do so lightly. For a modern parallel, see Motyer, The Prophecy, 102.

[22] H.G.M. Williamson, Isaiah 6-12: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Isaiah 1-27 (Volume 2) (ICC; London: Bloomsbury, 2018), 395.

[23] Goswell, “The Shape”, 107. Cf. Tate, “King and Messiah”, 418, who argues that these were throne names bestowed upon a king at his coronation; Watts, Isaiah 1-33, 175; Williamson, Variations on a Theme: King, Messiah, and Servant in the Book of Isaiah (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1998), 43, who argues this was a common ancient practice; idem, Isaiah 6-12, 397-398.

[24] Abernethy, The Book, 127; Tate, “King and Messiah”, 418; Paul D. Wegner, “A Re-examination of Isaiah IX 1-6”, VT 1 (1992): 107-108.

[25] Childs, Isaiah, 81.

[26] Goldingay, The Theology, 140; Wegner, “A Re-examination”, 110.

[27] Abernethy, The Book, 127-128; Wegner, “A Re-examination”, 111.

[28] Smith, Isaiah 1-39, 241; cf. Laato, Who is Immanuel?, 194, 303.

[29] Williamson, Variations, 36; idem, Isaiah 6-12, 403.

[30] Goswell, “The Shape”, 101.

[31] See Goswell, “The Shape”, 101-110, esp. 102. See also Tate, “King and Messiah”, 418.

[32] Cf. Wegner, “What’s New in Isaiah 9:1-7?”, in Interpreting Isaiah: Issues and Approaches, eds. David G. Firth and H.G.M. Williamson (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity, 2009), 240.

[33] Wegner, “What’s New”, 244.

[34] Goswell, “The Shape”, 102; Williamson, Variations, 32-34.

[35] Motyer, The Prophecy, 14, 121.

[36] Goldingay, The Theology, 141; Watts, Isaiah 1-33, 209.

[37] Contra Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, 278.

[38] Goswell, “Messianic Expectation in Isaiah 11”, WTJ 79 (2017): 126-127, 129.

[39] See Goswell, “The Shape”, who argues that Isaiah 40-55 has no place for a Davidic king; cf. Childs, Isaiah, 437, and Christopher R. North, The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah: An Historical and Critical Study (London: OUP, 1956), 218, who argue likewise. As for Isa 55:3-5, many scholars argue that it refers to the “democratization” of promises originally made to David – now applied to the entire community. Oswalt (The Book of Isaiah – Chapters 40-66 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998], 439-440) argues that the use of the third-person singular in v.4, combined with the Davidic reference, suggests that we are dealing with an individual Davidide, and that he ought to be identified with the Isaianic servant of Isaiah 40-53. However, he concedes that this line of evidence is not decisive.

[40] E.g., Motyer, The Prophecy, 344-345.

[41] See Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Int; Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995), 44, for an exploration of some of those parallels, with a focus on Isa 11:1-2 and 42:1-2; cf. Wolf, Interpreting, 191.

[42] See, for example, the arguments marshalled by Daniel I. Block, “My Servant David: Ancient Israel’s Vision of the Messiah”, in Israel’s Messiah in the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls, eds. Richard S. Hess and M. Daniel Carroll R. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 47. Cf. Abernethy, The Book, 148, n.83, who persuasively refutes such claims.

[43] Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, 50. Cf. Abernethy, The Book, 138-144.

[44] See North, The Suffering Servant, 142: “We are not at liberty to assume that the picture of the servant is homogenous throughout the Songs [of Isa 40-55]”; Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 166. It should be noted, however, that later “servant” passages seem to bear an individualist stamp (although the identification of the subject of Isa 49:1-7 remains disputed).

[45] Motyer, The Prophecy, 333.

[46] For a summary of such arguments (as well as cogent rejoinders), see Abernethy, The Book, 146.

[47] Abernethy, The Book, 146.

[48] Abernethy, The Book, 146.

[49] Motyer, The Prophecy, 387.

[50] “Ordinary” in the sense that he is not divine or transcendent. The servant (like the Davidic king of Isaiah 1-39) is clearly an extraordinary figure.

[51] Williamson, Variations, 12.

[52] Williamson, Variations, 18. See Watts, Isaiah 34-66 (Revised) (WBC 25; Waco: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 574. who says Isaiah’s vision is an integral part of his “religious consciousness”; Nathan MacDonald, “Monotheism in Isaiah” in Firth and Williamson, Interpreting Isaiah, 58.

[53] Williamson, Variations, 12.

[54] Watts, Isaiah 34-66, 574; MacDonald, “Monotheism”, 56.

[55] William Sanford La Sor, David Allan Hubbard and Frederic William Bush, Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form and Background of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 386. See also MacDonald, “Monotheism”, 45.

[56] R. Reed Lessing, “Yahweh Versus Marduk: Creation Theology in Isaiah 40-55”, Concordia Journal 36 (2010): 237-238. See also Goswell, “Isaiah 1:26 – A Neglected Text on Kingship”, Tyndale Bulletin 62 (2011): 235, who notes an almost exclusive emphasis on Yahweh as king in Isaiah 40-55; MacDonald, “Monotheism”, 48.

Reflections on Ruth

Recently, my wife and I read through the book of Ruth as part of our devotional time. It’s a beautiful little story, composed of a series of tautly narrated scenes that are all the more powerful for their understated grace. Artful and elegant, it manages to convey its message in a few, quick strokes. And, of course, I shouldn’t forget the memorable characters featured in the book – Naomi, Boaz, and above all, Ruth herself. Given its succinctness, Ruth can easily be read through in the space of about 15 minutes, and provides the reader with a satisfying and cathartic experience. There’s also much by way of rich theology that can be extracted from the book; indeed, though it is short, Ruth is far from superficial. It contains reflections on friendship, covenant, sacrifice, the scope of salvation, the power of the noble, independent woman, and the unseen hand of a providential God.

These are important themes, and I certainly want to touch upon some of them. Reading the book, however, led to me to look afresh at the character of Ruth. I must admit that I haven’t always given her the attention she deserves. When I was growing up, sermons or studies about Ruth tended to focus on Boaz and his role (from a Christian perspective) as a “type” – a prefiguring, that is – of Jesus. The main thrust of the message was that just as Boaz redeemed Ruth and Naomi from a precarious existence and an uncertain future (thus fulfilling his role as kinsmen-redeemer), so Jesus redeems us from sin and estrangement from God. This is true so far as it goes, and we should always be ready to adopt a Christological lens as we read the OT. But an all-too-hasty reliance on this sermonic trope means that not only do we fail to read Ruth on its own terms (as opposed to a mere prelude to Jesus); we tend to marginalise Ruth herself. Restricting ourselves to Boaz’s typological status, and the function he plays in the narrative, has the perverse effect of reducing Ruth to a patient – a passive recipient of another’s activity. Perhaps this reflects the male-dominated nature of theology and pastoral ministry: it’s easier to interpret the narrative from the point of view of the male protagonist than it is someone of the opposite sex. It might also have something to do with the concerns of low-church evangelicalism, which tends to read Christ into as much of the OT as possible. A figure like Boaz is certainly ripe for such an interpretation, even if that means neglecting other features of the text. But my point is that this focus drastically minimises Ruth’s central importance to the narrative. She is hardly a mere respondent to a male actor’s primary role; rather, she herself is a powerful, independent, savvy individual, whose own actions propel the narrative forward.

***

In any case, it’s on Ruth that I want to concentrate my (sometimes recursive) reflections, drawing on the main elements of the book as they relate to its eponymous character. From the very beginning of the narrative, she proves her enduring worth to those around her, particularly her mother-in-law, Naomi. Just as Boaz tends to be the focus of many a sermon, to the exclusion of the story’s female characters, so is his evolving relationship with Ruth foregrounded within narrative synopses. But I’d say that the relationship between Ruth and Naomi is just as crucial. Certainly, Naomi’s shift from bitter emptiness to fulness of joy was in no small measure due to the actions of her daughter-in-law. We tend to take for granted the deep compassion Ruth extended towards Naomi, as well as the degree to which she relinquished her own rights for the sake of her mother-in-law. However, it’s precisely this familiarity that means a closer examination is warranted.

To appreciate just how radical Ruth’s actions were, some context is probably necessary. Within the first five verses of the book, Naomi is rendered widowed and childless, having witnessed the deaths of both her husband and her adult sons (1:3-5). Having moved with Elimelech to Moab to escape famine, she was now isolated in a foreign land – a stranger with no one to care for her. In the patriarchal societies of the Ancient Near East, a woman without a male relative to provide guardianship was in a very precarious position. We might recall that brief episode in Luke 7, where Jesus raises a woman’s son in the town of Nain (vv.11-17). Not only are we told that the woman was a widow; Luke also informs us (quite deliberately) that the man who had died was her “only son” (v.12). Of course, in raising a dead person to life, a great and awesome miracle had been performed. But lying behind the spectacle was Christ’s deep concern for the woman’s parlous social and economic condition, given her last male relative was dead. The evangelist’s aim is to underscore Jesus’ compassion for the vulnerable and marginalised, here rendered to a grieving widow by miraculously re-uniting her with her son (v.15). Naomi was in much the same position as that woman. For all intents and purposes, she had been left with nothing – save for the apparent knowledge that she was bound to die alone, bereft, crushed and empty (cf. Ruth 1:21).

This is what Naomi believed – indeed, it is what she was bitterly resigned to. Even in the narrative’s initial scenes, however, there are seeds of hope, of redemptive transformation. That hope is embodied in Ruth the Moabitess. We may note in passing the interesting, perhaps deliberate, parallel between the two women: both of them travelled from one country to another, with Naomi migrating to Moab and Ruth journeying to Israel with her mother-in-law. But whereas Naomi’s time in Ruth’s homeland occasioned grief and loss, Ruth’s relocation was accompanied by – and actively presaged – the eventual transfiguration of Naomi’s present emptiness (cf. 4:14-15). That transfiguration began with Ruth’s signal decision to remain with her mother-in-law (1:16-18). She, along with her sister-in-law, Orpah, sought to go with Naomi back to her homeland. But whilst Orpah eventually returned to her own people, Ruth did not. Instead, she committed herself entirely to Naomi, renouncing her own rights – indeed, her own life – to care for her mother-in-law.

Ruth 1:16-18 is a “hinge” moment in the narrative, on which much of the rest of the story turns. Refusing Naomi’s exhortation to go home to her own family, Ruth pledged her undying loyalty. She promised to be with Naomi, and to make her mother-in-law’s people her own. Just as noteworthy, of course, was Ruth’s commitment to Naomi’s – and Israel’s – God. The words of 1:16-18 bear the unmistakable marks of a covenantal promise, in what amounts to a triumph of precise narrative art. The “You/I will” (or “Your/will be my”) contrast occur no fewer than five times in this excerpt, which reflects what I have already said about Ruth’s comprehensive and unwavering commitment to bind herself to Naomi’s fate. This was solidarity in its truest sense: Ruth identified her own life trajectory so completely with her mother-in-law’s that what was true for the latter was to be true for the former. Moreover, she placed herself under the weight of divine punishment if anything but death itself separated her from Naomi (“May the Lord deal with me…”). Ruth not only promised to unite her life to Naomi’s; she also rendered herself accountable before Yahweh, thereby accepting the consequences of failing to fulfil her vow. This was no cheap boast, but rather the perfect expression of covenantal devotion, sealed with an oath before Israel’s great lawmaker and sovereign.

Talk of such friendships is somewhat foreign to our modern ears. A covenant implies a legal agreement, something that has binding force on the parties involved. It’s the very antithesis to what an “authentic” relationship should be, so one might say. It’s true that we have probably become somewhat inured to the liquidity of contemporary relationships. Many friendships (though not all) tend to be characterised by a kind of casualness – a transience that is often allied with a basic regard for one’s own convenience, preferences or interests. Call it the consequences of radical individualism, if you like, or the reification of the autonomous self. The point is that people aren’t likely to place themselves under the stringencies of what amounts to a legal obligation, where their rights may be curtailed, and they themselves may be called upon to walk the difficult road of self-abnegation; even marriage, which is probably the closest approximation we have to the idea of a bond grounded in covenant and law, is becoming far rarer – and, where it does occur, seems far more fluid and impermanent.

So, when we read something like Ruth’s vow of loyalty, we might be surprised by the self-relinquishing depth of her decision. It seems a little strange: who, after all, “forgets” themselves in such a profoundly comprehensive way for another person? Perhaps some do, but in the ordinary course of events, it’s hardly common. Ruth would seem to be something of an anomaly. But is that because she made a foolish decision to give so much of herself to Naomi, without properly thinking through the consequences of her actions? Or is it because we (and by “we”, I mean the culture at large) have drifted away from what true friendship is meant to look like – that is, the kind of self-giving friendship as the Creator designed (cf. John 15:13)? When even the ties of marriage can dissolve with the rapidity of melting snow – and often do so with the tacit approval of a permissive culture – we shouldn’t wonder why we might find a story of bold, robust, covenant-making friendship to be rather startling.

***

As such, we cannot miss the radical nature of Ruth’s actions; nor should we downplay the total sacrifice she was undertaking. Think, for example, of the great cultural and geographical shift she had to undergo. Even today, migration from one country to another is no small feat, often entailing a significant amount of upheaval: an unfamiliar environment, social and cultural dislocation, possible loneliness, uncertain prospects, weak or ambiguous social networks, and so on. Imagine, then, someone making that choice without the benefits of modern telecommunications or international travel, migrating to a land where, historically, his or her people are regarded with suspicion (cf. Num 25:1ff). A sombre finality would have cast itself over Ruth’s decision, for she was not likely to see her family again (cf. 2:11). She was going to leave everything she knew – everything that anchors and grounds and stabilises a person – to take up an uncertain existence in a foreign land, with a people who considered those of her ilk to be idolaters and scoundrels. For all intents and purposes, Ruth’s decision meant permanent separation from her past. What, in turn, could she realistically (from this point in the narrative, at least) look forward to? As I have noted, Naomi was fatalistic about the loss she had experienced, and the diminishing likelihood that life would issue in anything else but gnawing emptiness. And yet, Ruth appeared to be entirely undeterred by such unwelcome prospects, so determined was she to forsake her life for her mother-in-law.

We ought not neglect the religious-spiritual concerns underpinning Ruth’s decision. Her choice to cleave to her mother-in-law was governed, not only by her concern for Naomi, but by the recognition that the God her mother-in-law followed was, in fact, the true Lord (cf. 2:12). Naomi even urged Ruth (implicitly, perhaps) to return to the deities of her own tribe and family (1:15). But Ruth was unswayed: she determined to follow Yahweh, as Naomi did, and in fact showed a purer faith at this point than her mother-in-law. Although she was about to embark on a journey with a woman whose own prospects were very dim indeed, Ruth seemed to understand that by doing so, she was actually joining the community of the elect, and cleaving to the world’s rightful sovereign. To anticipate some of what I want to say below, Ruth combined the basic tenets of God’s will in her person and promise: to love him, and to give of oneself to others. Ruth recognized the truth of Israel’s chosen status before a holy God, even as she recognized the consequent demands that flowed from this identity.

***

Ruth’s actions have been described as an example of “excessive altruism” (Martin Luther King, jnr.). This is quite true: Ruth was driven only by a selfless, unerring concern for Naomi’s welfare. And she proved her worth, substantiating her earlier promise to bind herself to her mother-in-law. Reading through Ruth 2, for example, we find the Moabitess expending herself in service of her mother-in-law, engaging in the arduous task of gleaning grain so that they had enough to eat (vv. 3, 17-19, 23). During this time, she encountered Boaz, one of the family’s kinsmen-redeemers (vv. 8-13). The chapter ends, poignantly enough, by telling us that “[Ruth] lived with her mother-in-law” – a reminder that Naomi, despite her embittered complaint (cf. 1:21), was neither bereft nor alone. The scene is set, of course, for Ruth’s night-time rendezvous with Boaz, and their eventual union.

There is much that we ourselves may glean. We should not simply understand Ruth’s altruism in a merely secular sense. The author shared with his or her contemporaries a thoroughly spiritual worldview, where one’s moral actions were inseparable from one’s religious identity. More to the point, Ruth’s acts of compassion – expressed in the humble earthiness of her work – clearly distilled the core demands of Torah. As the biblical scholar, Isabel Docampo, has written, “From the moment she uttered her pledge to Naomi in the middle of Moab’s fields, Ruth enacted God’s love as taught by the Torah”. Her actions not only reflected concern for the needs of another; they were deeply linked, by way of obedience to the demands of holy love, to her promise to serve Yahweh. True piety so often finds its expression in charity, especially as it is directed towards the lowly and the weak (cf. Jas 1:27a). Seen in the context of her double pledge (1:16-17), Ruth’s sacrificial love beautifully embodied (prospectively, of course!) Jesus’ admonition that the whole Law is summed up in the two greatest commandments: love the Lord with all your soul, heart, mind, and strength; and love your neighbour as yourself (cf. Mark 12:29-31). Ruth’s was a demonstration of obeisance to the deepest intentions of the Law – thus marking out this Moabitess as a true follower of Yahweh.

We would do well to appreciate this point. I have already noted that Ruth’s devotion to Naomi outweighed whatever regard she had for her own security, and that she understood Yahweh to be the One in whom she might take refuge. In all of this, Ruth completely subverted then-conventional notions concerning the identity of the righteous, and the boundaries of the covenant community. Recall that for many Israelites, Moabites – and Moabite women, in particular – were indelibly linked with that notorious incident in Numbers 25. Such “heathens” were but a snare to God’s elect, and allowing them entry to the covenant community was inviting spiritual and moral pollution. Biblical tradition holds that Moab’s kings had either waylaid or actively oppressed the Israelites (Judges 3:12-30; 11:17). More relevantly, Moab’s women were associated with harlotry in biblical imagination, having seduced God’s people to commit both sexual immorality and idolatry (Num 25:1-3). However, Ruth stood these traditions on their heads. Not only did she not undermine or sully the purity of the redeemed community; she positively enriched it with her lavish, unwavering commitment to love of God and love of neighbour. Rather than leading local Israelites astray, Ruth offered her contemporaries an unsullied distillation of what it meant to truly align oneself with the purposes and will of Yahweh.

How one reconciles this with the stringent demand of Deuteronomy 23:3-6, I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps the one tradition was intended as an abstract legal requirement, to be “relaxed” in the face of the irresistible fact of a non-Israelite’s allegiance to Yahweh. Perhaps we have here more than one tradition pertaining to the nation’s relationship to foreign peoples. Whatever the case, Ruth’s participation in the redeemed community – culminating with her marriage to Boaz – was a sign that the ever-present temptation to limit God’s covenant blessings on the basis of ethnicity was, in fact, a violation of the basic thrust of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 12:1-3). One commentator has said that Ruth shows us – and, one would think, its original audience – that “true religion is supranational”, such that a “foreigner who trusted in God and wished to be identified with the people of God was worthy of full acceptance” (Charles Oxley). The reality of Ruth’s membership within the covenant community looked forward to the great vision of the prophets, who held out the eschatological hope of the universal reach of Yahweh’s blessings (e.g., Isa 2:1-5; 25:6ff; 56:3-8). With the actions of its central character, the book of Ruth functions as a rebuke to a narrow cast of mind that rigidly ties true religiosity to a person’s ethnic or cultural features (cf. John 1:12-13). At their worst, such characteristics can become pernicious idols in the life of those who are bound by them, restricting thereby the extent and scope of God’s grace. For the book of Ruth, on the other hand, ethnicity is completely de-coupled from piety; what counts is, again, obedience before God, of which charity and selfless devotion towards others is a key manifestation (cf. Micah 6:8).

***

If Ruth the woman disturbs settled accounts of foreigners, then her character and actions also help to overturn other accepted notions – this time around gender, sex, and male-female relations. Her efforts, of course, were instrumental in Naomi’s own journey from emptiness and loss to redemption and fullness. I noted earlier the seeds of hope, even as Naomi resigned herself to the bitterness of death, that lie in the narrative: Ruth’s vow to remain with her mother-in-law, despite their being no obligation to do so; and the author’s subtle comment in 2:22 that Naomi returned to Israel – not alone, but “accompanied” by Ruth, at the time of harvest. Throughout the narrative, Ruth is presented as someone who takes the initiative, who does not wait to be acted upon, but engages decisively in action. It is action that is neither rash nor foolish. If wisdom could be seen in part as the artful calibration of ends with means, so that the desired result is brought about, then Ruth was very wise indeed. However, this was more than mere shrewdness. As Boaz himself remarked, Ruth was already known as a “woman of noble character” (3:11), which suggests that not only did she possess practical nous, but integrity and honour in abundance.

Far from being a mere recipient of paternalistic largesse, Ruth forged her path through adversity and loss. Instead of remaining helpless and inert before the welter of economic and social challenges she likely faced (migration, cultural dislocation, relative poverty, “outsider” status, etc.), this Moabitess laboured with tireless determination to provide for both herself and her mother-in-law. Ruth is presented as the very epitome of the savvy, independent woman, who engages with others in the open, public realm of the field and the workplace. It was her initiative that sustained Naomi upon her return to Bethlehem; and, even if we grant the necessity of Boaz’s decision to welcome both Ruth and Naomi into his household as their kinsmen-redeemer (4:9-10, 13-15), this was the direct result of Ruth’s earlier approach (3:7-13). His immediate response, we might recall, suggests that he saw her actions as a gracious gift to him (v.10). Certainly, it reverses the usual train of events, where masculinity is often associated with activity and initiative, and femininity functions as a passive, demure counterpoint. We are thus left with a narrative construction of women that would have challenged the prevailing patriarchal ethos. As the great OT scholar, Claus Westermann, perceptively argued, the book of Ruth “is one of the few [ancient] narratives in which the thoughts and actions of a woman comprise the events that to a large degree characterize the story…” He went on to observe – quite rightly – that Ruth’s actions effectively “upend the established order”, for she is neither “dependent” nor “subordinate”. Yes, Boaz is important to the story, and it would be a mistake to marginalize his role. But it is Ruth who drives the narrative forward, to such an extent that her decisions – the decisions of a poor, foreign female, no less – determine the trajectory of events. If one were wanting to use story to challenge or undercut dominant notions concerning social hierarchy and value, one would be hard pressed to do better than this subversive little romance.

***

One final comment, of a Christological nature, before drawing my reflections to a close. At the beginning of my reflections, I said that many sermons on Ruth emphasise Boaz’s role as a type of Christ: as the ageing Bethlehemite (cf. 3:10) redeemed Naomi and Ruth from a spectral existence lived on the edges of local society, so Christ redeems us from the perils of our sin-soaked alienation from God. This is true, and we ought not to dismiss the various signs the OT holds up to the final messianic revelation. But if what I have said about Ruth is true, could it not also be the case that she be seen as a kind of pre-figuring of Christ? After all, who was it that acted faithfully and compassionately, extending herself for another’s good? Who laboured and toiled and sacrificed to sustain their life? Who ensured that they would not be left alone, condemned to a life of scarcity and want? Who identified herself so radically with another’s fate? Who summed up the deepest demands of the Law in her own person? And whose actions guaranteed her mother-in-law’s transfiguration from emptiness to wholeness? In all these ways, Ruth acted out the kind of grace that Christ embodied in excelsis. Even without the obvious conceptual link of redemption (Boaz, Naomi’s and Ruth’s kinsmen-redeemer; Christ, our redeemer [cf. Mark 10:45; 1 Cor 1:30; Gal 3:13; Eph 1:7; Col 1:14]), I think we’re on solid ground in seeing certain parallels between Ruth’s sacrificial efforts, and the (far greater) sacrifice undertaken by Jesus (again, see John 15:13). Not only men, but women, too, may be assured that they have the chance to reflect the gracious, self-abnegating love of the divine in their own lives – love that redeems and heals and transforms and comforts. Apart from anything else, the story of Ruth shows us, I think, that the spirit of Christ may be witnessed in even the most unlikely of individuals. The liberality of God in calling a people to himself – a people formed by his word and spirit to embody the character of his Son – knows no bounds. If we restrict it on the basis of nationality, culture, gender or social status, then we do so to our own loss.

More on Manus

It’s been almost three months since the Manus Island crisis slipped out of the news cycle. But having written about the issue at the time, I now continue to reflect on it. Indeed, the plight of asylum seekers on both Manus and Nauru still impinges on my thinking, often making its presence felt at the borders of my consciousness. Some of my more recent reflections have been stimulated by reading works like The Undesirables: Inside Nauru, written by Mark Isaacs. With simple, powerful prose, Isaacs documents his time as a Salvation Army welfare worker on Nauru in 2012 and 2013. It has helped me to examine the issue anew, requiring me to approach it via the perspectives and experiences of the men who were first transferred to the re-opened processing centre. I hope to blog about Isaacs’ book in the future, but it’s first-hand accounts like his that have further nuanced my views on the matter. With that in mind, then, I want to re-visit what I wrote about the Manus Island crisis.

In my original piece on the subject, I focused on what I saw as a certain lack of subtlety in the way activists portrayed life on the island. I won’t really re-hash what I said there, except to say that such portrayals seemed designed, not to represent Manusian society with the appropriate shades of nuance and complexity, but to further a political-ideological goal. I still think that claims made by (some) refugee advocates are at least partly motivated by the desire to see a basic shift in Australia’s response to boat-borne asylum seekers. Whether the government would be right to undertake such a shift isn’t my point; nor would I wish to challenge activist claims with the equally simplistic assertion that the island is some kind of Edenic paradise. I merely wanted to highlight the inordinate influence such a goal appears to have had on the lurid assertions being made about Manus (and, by implication, local Manusians).

I myself tried to adopt a position that was more sensitive to the rolling complexities of the situation. But one thing I failed to properly appreciate was the role that past and ongoing experiences of trauma would have played in the men’s subjective perceptions of their own safety and wellbeing. It’s an important point to consider. Many of the asylum seekers have fled horrors most of us will never have to face. It doesn’t require much imagination to see how this might undermine a person’s sense of self, and shatter their trust in the world. Furthermore, the late Michael Gordon – who up until his untimely death was writing for the Fairfax papers – filed a report in 2016 about the deleterious mental health of asylum seekers on Manus. He wrote of the re-traumatising experiences some of the men have had whilst staying on the island. I think, for example, of the riots that have occurred at the (now-defunct) processing centre at the Lombrum naval base, or the handful of documented assaults on asylum seekers whilst they were outside the compound. For people who have already endured their fare share of suffering, such incidents were sure to have had a profoundly debilitating effect on their sense of safety and resilience.

This extends well beyond a series of isolated incidents, however. The more mundane, quotidian aspects of life in the Manus Island compound have had their own effects. As I wrote at the time, the conditions in Australia’s offshore processing centres remain deeply inadequate (to say the least). Whatever success it may have had in helping to stem the flow of boat-borne asylum seekers, the system has been marked by chronic mismanagement, degrading conditions, and what appears to be an endemic, almost crushing, lack of certainty. All told, it’s quite clear that they have played their own, independent role in the deterioration of already fragile individuals. As Gordon noted 18 months ago, poor conditions, open attacks and pre-existing trauma have conspired to produce a pervasive sense of vulnerability among certain of the asylum seekers on the island. Moreover, there is likely to be a contagion effect under such trying circumstances. Living in close proximity with other “exposed” individuals is certainly going to heighten, expand and intensify feelings of insecurity, whether or not a particular asylum seeker has been subjected to violence or assault. Indeed, what may germinate with a handful of people initially can quickly spread, “infecting” much of the centre’s residents.

Of course, it’s not the case that Manus is awash with violent, unremitting xenophobia after all. As I have already said, despite the fact that the island certainly wrestles with its own share of anti-social behaviour (just as every community does), I remain convinced that some activists are determined to paint as bleak a picture as possible. Even so, it’s also true that the subjective perceptions of some of the men are likely to have been shaped by prior experiences of abuse. For example, interpretations of the wider significance of individual incidents of violence – brutal enough in themselves – are likely to have been viewed through the lens of past trauma. We’ve all heard of people who have been assaulted or robbed struggling with the residual consequences of such an ordeal, even long after the event in question. Objectively, the threat to one’s life may no longer exist, or is somewhat diminished; an acute sense of subjective vulnerability, however, may well persist for many years. This is consistent with clinical research, which indicates quite clearly that people who have suffered different kinds of trauma are more likely to experience the world around them as dangerous and threatening (again, regardless of what is objectively the case). Much the same likely obtains here: concerns around safety (which are entirely legitimate) are undoubtedly going to be amplified, given the deep psychological wounds a number of the men have already been nursing. In fact, they probably have more reason to wrestle with an enduring conviction that they remain at risk. This is so, partly due to the manifest inadequacies of their present living circumstances, and partly to the ripple effects of the contagion phenomenon I noted earlier.

Whatever the (more complicated) reality of Manus Island might be, then, it would make sense for many asylum seekers there to feel unsafe — perhaps desperately so. It would certainly help explain the reluctance some men expressed last year when asked to move out of the Lombrum compound into new lodgings (of course, it’s also possible that others among them deliberately exaggerated such fears for their own gain, but I doubt this could ever be substantiated). Again, this doesn’t mean that the reality of life on Manus Island corresponds neatly to activist portrayals. It does suggest, however, that a significant proportion of the men have been shouldering genuine fears – borne out of past experiences, and compounded by present ones – that understandably colour their perceptions, and magnify their belief that future acts of violence are likely.  Accurate though I may have been on other points, I should have been far more attuned to these particular facts from the beginning.

One Same-Sex Marriage, a Conscientious Objector, and Three Failed Arguments (Part Two)

Introduction

A few weeks ago, I began a short series examining several arguments that have been put forward by Australian advocates of same-sex marriage, many of whom think that conscientious objectors within the commercial wedding industry should not be allowed to withhold their creative talents from a same-sex wedding. In my first post, I critically engaged the claim that a dissenting wedding operator is analogous to a racist business owner who refuses to serve certain people based on the colour of their skin. As anybody who read that piece will know, I found the argument sadly wanting, even as I acknowledged that efforts like mine to rebut it aren’t likely to make a substantial difference to the overall trajectory of the debate. Nevertheless, I continue in the hope that conducting discussions on the basis of a shared commitment to reason and civility — not to mention a sincere and open pursuit of the truth — remains a worthwhile enterprise. This is particularly so in a liberal democracy, which can only properly survive if such conduct is not just accepted in theory, but adhered to in practice.

Religious Expression and Journalistic Fallacies

In this post, I want to tackle a slightly different attempt to legitimize restrictions upon dissenting wedding operators. Like the focus of my previous piece, this argument is based on the alleged analogy between opposition to SSM and forms of conduct that are widely (if not universally) condemned. Unlike the analogy between race and SSM, this one is concerned with narrower questions regarding acceptable (and indeed, unacceptable) manifestations of religiosity.

On the day the results of Australia’s SSM plebiscite were revealed, the journalist Michael Bachelard wrote a piece for the Fairfax press, in which he averred that “religious freedom is, and should be, limited”. This basic thesis formed the backdrop to his specific point: namely, that there is no reason to allow a wedding vendor to refuse service to a same-sex couple on the grounds of a sincere religious belief. In fact, he claimed that there are obvious reasons why such practices should be prohibited, and went on to cite several examples of religiously-inspired activity that is nonetheless deemed illegal. Among them were the Jesus People and Children of God (cultish groups that have engaged in the violent sexual abuse of women and children) and certain Muslim sects that practice female genital mutilation (hereafter, FGM). Bachelard seemed to think that because Australian law already prohibits sexual abuse and FGM — even if they are practiced by sincere religious individuals — there exists clear and principled precedent for restricting the ability of a religious wedding operator to refuse to service to a same-sex wedding.

At a glance, the argument appears to be quite persuasive. But in this instance, outward appearance and substantive reality enjoy little more than a passing acquaintance with each other. Beneath its superficial cogency lie several problems, which taken together prove to be fatal. Bachelard’s claimed analogies aren’t really analogous at all, at least in the relevant sense. Quite the opposite: as we shall see, there are a number of crucial differences between Bachelard’s selected examples, and the case of a dissenting wedding vendor.

Excursus: Pre-empting a Predictable Objection (Yet Again)

I will examine those differences shortly. But before I do that, I want to briefly highlight another erroneous element in Bachelard’s argument. At one point, he criticises the (since aborted) attempts by Liberal Senator, James Paterson, to introduce a SSM bill into parliament, which would have given conscientious objectors in the commercial wedding industry the right to refuse service to a same-sex wedding. Bachelard contends that everyone ought to abide by anti-discrimination laws, “in the name of a civilized society, in not discriminating against people for who they are” (emphasis mine). Bachelard wants to say that a religiously conservative wedding vendor who does not wish to service a same-sex wedding is in clear violation of anti-discrimination law — and is, to that extent, engaging in self-evidently unlawful activity, just as the abusive member of the Jesus People is when he molests children.

Such activity would of course be unjust if it were done on the basis of the italicised portion of the quote above. But is someone who refuses to lend his creative talents to a same-sex wedding really “discriminating against people for who they are”? As I sought to show in my previous essay, that refusal is grounded in one’s beliefs about the true shape and nature of marriage. It is not about the identities or attributes of the participants per se, but about the structure of the event in which they are participating. Indeed, as I also demonstrated in that earlier piece, the parties to an event and the event itself are logically distinct; to oppose the latter does not require a person to hold any animus against, or evince bad faith towards, the former. Dissenting wedding operators who have been hauled before judges and anti-discrimination boards have made it abundantly clear that they are more than happy to serve gay and lesbian couples for a variety of occasions. In addition, the recent ruling by a Californian judge in just such a case suggests that not only is a refusal to service a same-sex wedding not a genuine instance of unfair discrimination; being compelled to provide that service may actually constitute a violation of the rights of the wedding vendor in question. So it’s not at all clear that what Bachelard assumes (which is precisely what he does) is correct. This will be important as we proceed, lest anyone is tempted to rest on the facile riposte that conduct of this kind is unjustly — and obviously — discriminatory.

Same-Sex Weddings, FGM and Sexual Abuse: Some Crucial Dis-analogies

Let’s return, however, to Bachelard’s alleged analogies, and why they fail on multiple levels. To begin, there is a wide gulf in the degree of harm experienced by those who have supposedly been wronged. I would argue that the examples in Bachelard’s article are, in fact, vastly different in their effects. For example, a girl who endures FGM suffers injury in a way that a same-sex couple — who might be faced with the indignity of a religiously conservative florist refusing to arrange their wedding bouquets — does not. Apart from the excruciating pain of the procedure itself, a victim of FGM will likely experience a combination of some (or all) of the following symptoms, often for many years: painful periods, excessive bleeding, labour difficulties, infections, urinary problems, unhealed wounds, or even death.  Of course, a same-sex couple confronted with an unwilling wedding operator is likely to feel aggrieved and embarrassed. No one would want to deny that such an experience could well leave one feeling quite humiliated. Nor would one wish to trivialise such experiences. But the question of degree or proportion is paramount. Certainly, it’s difficult to equate that kind emotional hardship — which may be rather ephemeral, depending on the circumstances — with the acute, long-term physical and psychological suffering a young female experiences as a result of a forced clitoridectomy.  The severity of the one is, I would suggest, far outweighed by the other.

This is not to say that such differences are sufficient in themselves to secure dissenting wedding vendors a reprieve (even if they should give us pause to wonder whether Bachelard has been too hasty in grouping these examples together): if publicly manifesting one’s religious beliefs occasions injury (whether physical or emotional), then perhaps it doesn’t really matter how severe or enduring that injury is. One may argue that even if they do differ in degree, they might nonetheless fall under the same broad rubric of “harm”; as such (so the argument might go), they should be liable to penalties commensurate with the severity of the offence.

But in this instance, a difference in degree is accompanied by, and connected to, a qualitative distinction. Whilst measuring the harm experienced by the victim of FGM or sexual abuse is relatively straightforward, at least in legal terms, things are not so easy in the case of a same-sex couple claiming emotional or dignitary harm as a result of being refused service by a wedding vendor. The former case involves material injury to one’s person — in other words, harms that can be publicly identified and verified. They possess a tangibility that injuries associated with supposedly insulting conduct by another person lack. Indeed, the relationship between a certain act and one’s subjective experience of offence or emotional distress is more remote than the tight, causal connection between the practice of, say, FGM and the experience of personal suffering. Whilst the latter is, by its very nature, bound to cause harm, the extent to which the former causes injury is based on the internal states and perceptions of those who may be in a position to make such a claim. This renders the notion of dignitary or emotional injury far more slippery: whilst the consequences of FGM can be readily defined and substantiated, it is much more difficult to obtain proof of emotional harm that can be publicly countenanced.  This is not to say that it does not, in general, exist, or that those making such claims are lying. It is merely to argue that they are far harder to capture legally than actions that quite clearly violate the liberty of another individual by causing material — and, supervening upon that, psychological — injury.

This brings me to a further dis-analogy: that which concerns the distribution of rights and possible harms between the two parties. In the case of religious leaders practicing FGM or sexual abuse, there is a clear, even radical, asymmetry of rights or entitlements. The right of vulnerable individuals not to be violated by the activity of others automatically negates the alleged “right” of the person perpetrating those acts to manifest his religious convictions in this way. The sacrosanct nature of one’s person is part of the bedrock of our legal system. It is regarded as morally and legally inviolable, such that an act that attempts to impinge upon that status is necessarily deemed unlawful. Religious motivation, however genuine it may be, is irrelevant in these circumstances — as are any claims of “harm” that might be “suffered” by the perpetrator if he were compelled to cease his activity. Moreover, whilst the injuries associated with Bachelard’s examples are readily apparent in the case of the victims, corresponding claims made by perpetrators would be so intangible — so indefinable — as to defy verification.

However, there seems to be a much closer balance between the alleged rights or harms of a dissenting wedding vendor and those of a same-sex couple wanting to wed. Whatever rights a same-sex couple may claim in this context, and whatever alleged distress they may have experienced as a result of being rebuffed — these must be weighed against the rights of a person to maintain integrity and cohesion between inner conviction and outward expression. On the one hand, we have noted that claims of emotional injury or dignitary harm are theoretically problematic. Even on the assumption that such notions could be defined coherently and measured intelligibly, it does not follow that precipitating conduct should be penalized (in the way that conduct causing material or bodily harm ought to be). Indeed, as the American legal scholar, Andrew Koppelman (himself an advocate for SSM) has pointed out:*

“The dignitary harm of knowing that some of your fellow citizens condemn your way of life is not one from which a law can or should protect you in a regime of free speech”.

On the other hand, dissenting wedding vendors can also claim that they possess certain rights. Religiously conservative wedding vendors can assert that having to lend their creative talents to a same-sex wedding potentially violates their deeply-held convictions: engaging in activity that implicitly legitimizes a ceremony of which a person disapproves forces them to dis-integrate their views and their conduct. It is at least arguable that the religiously conservative cake-maker (for example) has the right not to participate in something he regards as immoral, in order to avoid complicity. We might recall what I said earlier about the Californian judge, who recently ruled that forcing a Christian baker to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple was a violation of her right to freedom of speech and expressive conduct. In addition, Bachelard’s argument ignores the possible harms such vendors may have to endure, regardless of the choice they make. Those who do not wish to participate in a same-sex wedding are, in many instances, confronted with the prospect of two unwelcome alternatives: violate their consciences and sacred convictions; or succumb to often hefty financial and pecuniary penalties.

Active and Passive Manifestations of Religion: A Fundamental Difference

There is one final difference between Bachelard’s chosen examples, and that of the dissenting wedding vendor. In many respects, it is fundamental to the entire debate. It centres on the direction of activity between the two parties, and the asymmetry between passive and active manifestations of one’s (in this case, religious) beliefs. I have hinted at this difference already, in referring to the kinds of violations of which a practitioner of FGM is guilty, but which appear to be absent in the case of a religiously conservative wedding vendor. However, I think it important to flesh this out a little more.

In the case, say, of an acolyte of the Jesus People abusing a minor within their spiritual community, we have a clear example of one individual acting upon another, thereby curtailing his right to liberty and freedom from degrading treatment. Indeed, I think most would agree that the act, by its very nature, violates the victim’s person, and, in most cases, harms them materially. The religious believer in this instance manifests his convictions in an active manner; he commits a certain act against another individual, which necessarily restricts or smothers their rights. In that sense, it’s a zero sum game: the active party imposes himself upon a vulnerable, unconsenting or unwilling recipient, which entails the simultaneous extension and restriction of one’s freedom of action. As I have already noted, it is for this reason that such behaviour, whatever its inspiration, is rightly considered unlawful — and indeed, criminal.

However, the religiously-inclined wedding vendor who refuses to lend his creative talents to a same-sex wedding is engaged in passive abstention. Here, the question of (religiously-motivated) imposition is irrelevant, for it simply does not exist. The vendor seeks to preserve coherence between inner conviction and outward activity, whilst avoiding duplicitous, hypocritical or morally inconsistent behaviour, and does so by refraining from participation in the event. In other words, he merely omits to do something. As the American columnist David Brooks (another advocate of SSM) has recently written, religiously conservative wedding operators who refuse to participate creatively in a same-sex wedding aren’t trying to restrict others’ (in this case, gay) rights; nor are they imposing themselves on other people. They are simply asking not “to be forced to take part” — i.e., they seek leave to abstain from contributing materially to something with which they disagree. Where someone who practices FGM assumes an active, dominant role in the relationship with the victim of such a procedure, a Jack Phillips or a Barronelle Stutzman is simply “withdrawing” from certain activity. This does not affect the hypothetical same-sex couple in the same way that sexual abuse, say, affects its victim: apart from the relative difficulties surrounding the notion of dignitary harm, the couple in this scenario is not restricted or coercively acted upon, as the passive parties in Bachelard’s initial examples most certainly are.

Indeed, whereas the individuals in Bachelard’s opening examples necessarily violate the integrity of another’s person, the same cannot be said of the hypothetical wedding vendor. In arguing for limits to expressions of religious belief, Bachelard presumes that anything less would lead to the unwelcome expansion of pernicious activity, under the guise of maintaining religious liberty (Bachelard even dismisses countervailing calls as “bogus”, clearly implying that those who advocate in this direction are cynically using religious freedom as a veneer to advance oppressive practices). This, of course, would explain why he has framed the debate with examples that most people are likely to see as clear and violent threats to civil liberties. But again, he overlooks key features of the active-passive distinction I have tried to highlight. Religious practices such as FGM and cultish sexual abuse are what we might term inherently “expansionist” — that is, they expand the range of the perpetrator’s activity at the expense of his victim. By contrast, the actions of conscientious objectors within the commercial wedding industry are “preservationist”: as Brooks’ earlier observation suggests, they seek merely to preserve what they believe could be undermined through participation in an event that contradicts their basic convictions. Limiting freedom of religion in the former instances goes without saying, given their active tendency towards the suffocation of rights and the generation of suffering. The notion that similar restrictions should be applied to the latter is, at the very least, a contestable proposition.

Final Reflections

Bachelard’s argument is likely to appeal to those who already agree that withholding commercial wedding services to a same-sex couple is an egregious example of invidious discrimination. It’s also bound to appeal to many of the uncommitted, who aren’t likely to ask whether his contention has any merit, or whether it’s fair to group an unwilling baker (say) with child rapists and mutilators of the flesh. In that sense, Bachelard’s not unlike the targets of my last piece on this topic, since they also sought to draw connections between superficially similar acts. Intentional or not, his rhetoric has the effect of circumventing a person’s critical faculties: having first been confronted with examples of religiously-motivated violence, the unwary reader is lured into docile acceptance of the proposition that the sacred convictions of religiously-sensitive wedding operators should be met with the same kind of righteous fury. This is simply guilt-by-association, but without the label.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I am not arguing that there should be no limits on alleged expressions of religious belief. What I have written here should make that clear. But I also think that there are principled reasons for allowing some religious freedoms whilst disallowing others. That, too, should be clear from what I have written. But the problem, as I see it, lies in the basic orientation of a piece like Bachelard’s. Underlying the words themselves is the fundamentally negative belief that religion is, and has been, a largely malignant influence on society. Whether one is referring to an imam who mutilates young girls or a dissenting wedding vendor, it is important that manifestations of religious or spiritual belief — especially those in the public arena — be kept on a taut leash. That leash, of course, is to be held by the secular state, which (to change the metaphor) must corral such expressions so that the baleful forces of superstition and religious bigotry do not corrode our modern, progressive way of life. If anyone objects to this project, their claims can safely be dismissed as a rear-guard action, aimed at  shoring up the last vestiges of religious privilege. Or so the assumption goes, anyway.

But it’s time to conclude. Despite his own certainty on this question — one might call it a kind of secular zeal — Bachelard’s claimed analogy breaks down at almost every relevant point. He is left with the mere shell of an argument, which not only fails to advance a good-faith dialogue, but positively frustrates it. Unfortunately, given the times in which we live, his offering is likely to fuel efforts that further restrict the right of religious conservatives to live in harmony with their deeply-held convictions.

*Please note that the article to which I have linked was not penned by Koppelman, but by the legal academic, Sherif Girgis, who quoted the same excerpt that I did. It appears the original piece is no longer available for viewing online (it was originally published in the Southern Californian Law Review).

 

Worshiping the “God” of MTD: Modern Idolatry, Ancient Roots

This is a piece I wrote a couple of years ago for a certain magazine, but it was not published. So you, dear readers, may enjoy it now. 

A little over a decade ago, the sociologist of religion, Christian Smith, examined the lives of religious contemporary American teenagers, interviewing, among others, young Christians. What he discovered was very revealing.

According to Smith, most of those he spoke with held views about God and their relationship to him, which, whilst bearing a faint resemblance to the religion in which they had grown up, were, in many ways, dramatically different – owing more to contemporary cultural and spiritual norms than to ancient religious traditions. Smith argued that these beliefs formed a kind of spiritual ‘complex’, and was the de facto (and dominant) religion amongst teens in the United States. Smith christened this phenomenon, ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ (or MTD for short).

The concept of MTD needs some unpacking. Smith contended that religious teens held to several fixed points in their creed: God, generically defined, wants all people to “be good, nice and fair to each other,” with goodness here being defined in a vague sort of way; God also, governs the world at a distance, though he might not intervene all that frequently; when he does intervene, it is to help people solve problems that confront in their lives; the chief aim in life is to develop a positive self-image – something that God is supposed to guarantee; and that ‘good’ people will go to heaven. For the teens Smith interviewed, these elements were axiomatic, amounting to belief in a laissez-faire god, whose interventions are chiefly therapeutic, who asks people to practice a fairly banal kind of morality, and who guarantees – based upon adherence to that morality – a place of enjoyment in the hereafter.

What was really astounding was Smith’s discovery that most of his subjects had not developed their ideas independently; rather, they had imbibed them from the religious communities of which were a part. This led Smith to contend that they were simply reflections of a wider phenomenon, prevalent in mosques, synagogues and (importantly) churches. If that is so, then MTD encompasses many more people, not just those Smith interviewed.

* * *

Whilst the modern world – with its consumerism, deep individualism and transactional view of so much of life – is particularly conducive to the propagation of something like MTD, we should not make the mistake of thinking that some “golden age” of religion lies somewhere beyond the range of our own historical grasp. And, more to the point, neither Christians individually, nor the church corporately, has been immune to the phenomenon. I am reminded, for example, of the great popularity that the Prosperity “Gospel” has achieved in many putative Christian communities: trust in God, and all your (material) dreams will come true! A generation or two ago, families may have gone to church, not because they discerned a divine summons to be a part of a new, spiritual community, but because of cultural constraints. The real goal, it seems, was not obedience to God, the ground and centre of all that is, but cultural integration and local respectability. Similarly, when Christianity was the dominant civil religion in the West, developing contacts within a local church community could do wonders for an aspiring businessman. Again, God was seen an instrument, and religion merely functional – lacking, perhaps, truth and significance in itself, and reduced to a means towards a more fundamental (in this case, economic) end.

Such a phenomenon stretches back even further, all the way to the very dawning of Christianity. About two decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul had to wrestle with a raft of problems besetting the church in Corinth. Called to live out a life of holiness and obedience before the God that had liberated them, the Corinthian Christians had tried to fuse the Gospel with pagan ideas of religion and spirituality. Far from seeing the Gospel – and the God who stood behind it – as something to which they were called to yield, the Corinthians viewed it as something that could be used to get ahead. This is reflected, amongst other things, in what Paul says about personality cults (1 Cor 1:10-12, 3:1-9), sexual immorality (5:1-6), and self-aggrandizement through the exercise of spiritual gifts (Chs. 12-14). In all these ways, the Corinthians had fallen into the trap of treating God as secondary, as little more than an instrument that could be manipulated for other ends.

It is for these reasons that contemporary individualism can only ever function as one type of explanation for the phenomenon of MTD. Sure, it can well flourish in such an environment: a spiritual creed that emphatically places the individual at its centre certainly plays well to our present age. But if what I have said is true, then using God, or the divine, for oneself is not merely the preserve of the modern age; using God as an instrument – a kind of secondary tool – is something to which people in every age are prone. Perhaps, beneath the varied manifestations of superficial spirituality and counterfeit piety lies the primal reality of the humanity’s propensity towards idolatry – of reducing the transcendent God to a human fabrication, which can then be tamed and exploited. Paul, of course, knew this well, when he excoriated humanity for its tendency to exchange the glory of the immortal Creator for bits of his creation (Romans 1:20-23, 25). Even the Corinthians, living so soon after the events of Easter, had constructed for themselves an idol that bore only faint resemblance to the God of the Gospel that Paul preached. Whether it’s in its ancient or modern guise, idolatry succeeds in turning God – and the spirituality that flows from him – into a mere function of a person’s own psychological interests and desires.

* * *

How different this is from an authentically Christian view of God and ourselves. As I was thinking about MTD, three main differences stood out, which together have profound implications for the construction of a genuine Christian spirituality. First, MTD seems to reflect a very ego-centric view of spirituality and religion, and is to that extent well-suited to our present, individualistic age. This is seen particularly in the way it shapes a person’s ethical outlook. Whilst MTD makes room for fairness and niceties, it promotes a kind of ‘no-cost’ morality, which will only go so far as the needs and interests of the individual will allow. As Smith discovered even this system of morality was, for many of his subjects, another means of attaining subjective wellbeing: ‘do good, feel good’, in other words. Neither (divinely-mandated) goodness, nor the image-bearing objects of that goodness, are ends in themselves; on the view of MTD, they are instruments for the more self-centred goal of bolstering personal self-esteem.

Christian ethics is much more radical than that, for two main reasons. On the one hand, it is founded upon the figure of Jesus himself, who gave us a model of sacrificial service before God and others. Where MTD uses the self as the yardstick of what is right and good, for Christian spirituality, it is the character and life of Jesus that grounds all ethics. Similarly, where MTD is focused primarily upon the individual, Christianity is focused, in large part, upon others. Many of Jesus’ parables have this flavour about them. He talks, for example, of the “wise and faithful” person as characterised by a willingness, in deference to God, to serve others with what he or she has (e.g., Luke 12:42ff).

It’s hard, too, not to think of what Paul says when he writes to the church in Philippi. The believers there should adopt an attitude like that of Jesus himself, who “made himself nothing”, “taking the…nature of a servant”, and “humbling himself…to death…on a cross” on behalf of others (Philippians 2:5-8). This represents a far more comprehensive, far more sweeping, approach to the ethical – indeed, the righteous – life. It is a life that revolves, not around the needs of self, but around the needs of others, even if that means sacrificing what is cherished or treasured. True Christian spirituality asks a person to order his or her life around an enduring commitment to the needs of others. Indeed, Paul’s exhortation in Philippians points to the dramatic nature of this commitment, as the Christian seeks to emulate Christ: it must lead to an imitative willingness to put aside any claims one might have, whether those claims relate to one’s status, possessions, comforts – even, according to the passage, one’s own life.

On the other hand, the kind of ethical change that authentic Christian spirituality demands – indeed, enables – moves far beyond the essentially affirmative formula of MTD. Given that MTD rests on the individual’s moral estimations for its ethical centre, it can never be truly transformative. Jesus’ well-known exhortation that one must be “born again” in order to “see” God (John 3:3) points subtly in this direction: the present, transient world can never provide the resources for a genuinely spiritual life; one must “begin again”, as it were, with the life of the Christian representing such a break from the past that it can be described as a new birth. In this, we must remember the centrality of the figure of Christ: he functions, not only as the paradigm for authentic Christian living, but as the foundation making it possible in the first place. Christian orthodoxy calls for a complete re-ordering of a person’s life, ethically and spiritually, as a person’s old nature is left behind, and a new nature is adopted (Col 3:5, 10). And this can only come about because of the pioneering work of Jesus himself. It is, of course, through him that one may undergo that change, as one is taken from the realm of sin and death and corruption, and placed under the aegis of him who sets the pattern for true, image-bearing living. MTD, by contrast, makes no room for the fundamental renovation of a person’s nature, nor can it; it can only encourage superficial change at best.

The second main difference I discerned is deeply related to the first. The ego-centric nature of MTD implies that God is also treated as a means to an end. God is reduced to a kind of “cosmic butler” (Smith), there largely to satisfy our wants and resolve our problems. God is ‘consumed’, so to speak, providing a product – in this case, spiritual harmony and psychological peace – to people whose main concern is to derive from religion whatever they can to help them along in life. Again, it’s difficult to overstate the difference here from a genuine Christian view of God. If true religion calls for service to others as a clear demonstration of piety, then it also sees obedience to God – from which flows the call to give of oneself to one’s fellows – as the greatest good. What the Gospel does is upend our relationship to the transcendent. God is not a “cosmic butler”, but the Lord of the cosmos; Christ, as the one who uniquely reveals this God, is the master; his claim over our lives – leading inevitably to the summons to self-giving love – is total and comprehensive. Moreover, he is not some kind of instrument, or the means to a more fundamental end, precisely because he is, in himself, the ultimate end and fulfilment of all things. He is utterly transcendent — sovereign over everything — whilst also constituting the existential ground of all that is. As Paul put it, when he preached to the pagans of Athens, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Christian spirituality remains adrift unless it is tethered to an acknowledgement of God as the One upon whom everything exists, and from whom all life flows. He is the beginning and the end, the source and the summit, of all existence. Trying to use God to reach something that one sees as the ultimate goal (as MTD implicitly does) is like a person who, having lost a torch in the middle of the day, decides to use the brilliance of the sun to search for it – hoping then they will be able to find that little source of light, and use it for the illumination they so desperately seek.

At any rate, the deism of MTD ironically undercuts whatever comfort one might seek from this kind of god. He is a distant deity: neither greatly concerned with the world’s affairs (save for wanting to guarantee psychological stability in certain people), nor driven to do anything, fundamentally, about it. He is the absentee-landlord of eighteenth-century deism, with a little bit of Oprah-inspired therapeutic wisdom thrown in for good measure. This brings me to the third main difference between the creed of MTD and authentic Christian belief. Whilst the God of Christian theology and tradition is transcendent, he is most certainly not distant. For it is in his transcendence – his freedom from all constraints, both material and metaphysical – that he is able, at the same time, to be intimately involved in the affairs of his creation. Reading through, say, John’s Gospel, shows us the twin truths of God’s supremacy and closeness, upon which a robust Christian spirituality may be built. He is, on the one hand, the Creator of all things, who through his Word has fashioned and animated this world (John 1:1-3). But he is also the heavenly Father, who condescends to those who are his, welcoming them into the intimate fellowship of the Trinitarian community (John 14:23; 17:26). What follows is an abiding, deep-rooted joy, based upon the enduring presence of the Creator himself. It is, in other words, the goal and focal point of true spirituality. With its offers of superficial succour, tied as they are to the vagaries of a person’s psychological state, the God of MTD represents a parody of what union with the divine is meant to look like.

* * *

MTD, then, is simply the latest in a litany of creeds and spiritual ‘packages’ offering the mirage of piety and religious devotion. At any rate, if we were to follow its underlying logic, we’d be left with a domesticated deity, denuded of his sovereign majesty. Any claim he might want to make upon us would be empty, since we would ultimately be at the centre of our spiritual lives. Such a relationship appears to be a far cry from what both Scripture and Christian tradition have affirmed about the Creator: he who brought the worlds into being with his command, who declared that he is the self-existent “I AM”, and who confronted Job in the storm. The temptation towards idolatry which confronts every age is something that also confronts the church as it seeks to represent God faithfully and genuinely.

The challenge for us, I suppose, is to humbly yield to the God who has created us, and upon whom we utterly depend. We must allow ourselves to be shaped by this God, who calls us – summons us – to be his. We cannot afford to fall into the trap of trying to look beyond him for whatever he can provide for us. He is, as I said, the ultimate foundation of everything else, such that there is no ‘beyond’. That way lies the false gods of human imagination, as do all efforts to ‘massage’ our image of the divine according to whatever cultural trends may presently be in vogue. The God Christians are called to follow cannot be tamed by human designs, or be made to fit into convenient packages, for the very reason that he is the One within whose plans and purposes we are called to fit. Such an acknowledgment is part of the very fabric of authentic Christian spirituality. Being a Christian, and pursuing a life of discipleship, requires the willingness to enter into a narrative that is not of one’s own making, one that has been opened up by the epochal work of Christ: a “world” that establishes the boundaries of truth and reality, morality and holiness. It can be difficult and demanding, in that we are not the ultimate legitimators of what constitutes the good. However, with that acknowledgement comes the opportunity to reflect and embody the ultimate Ground of all goodness – to live and act according to our (divinely-intended) natures.

To embody a fully-orbed life of Christian faith, we cannot fall into the trap of ‘consuming’ religion in order simply to satisfy some kind of spiritual dimension. As we approach God – as we approach the crucified and resurrected Christ – we are confronted with One who upends our assumptions about our relation to the divine, and subverts all of the idols that we may have constructed. For God is the One over every dimension, public and private, which compose the rather messy projects we call our lives. When we adopt this kind of posture, and clothe ourselves in this kind of thinking, we will find that those longings for fulfilment, transcendence, completeness and calm – all worthwhile and legitimate in themselves – are paradoxically met. It is a life of death and resurrection, of radical transformation, where one’s old existence is swallowed up by newness of life (cf. 1 Cor 15:53-54). It is something that contemporary constructions of spirituality, reflecting as they do the strictures and finitude of the present world, could never hope to emulate.