Apologetics

Christians, Muslims, and the Reference to God

Introduction

Do Christians and Muslims refer to the same God? Are they worshiping the same being? Or are the followers of Muhammed – as some Christians hold – rallying behind nothing more than an idol of their own making?

These are questions that arise (better: erupt) from time to time, often cohabiting with a raft of political issues concerning the contested place of Muslims in modern Western societies. Their intermingling means that one’s answers tend to be governed, not by considered analysis of the relevant data, but by tribal affiliation. The subservience of open enquiry doesn’t augur well for the successful pursuit of truth; as previous debates have demonstrated, such efforts are often hamstrung when pre-fabricated narratives or partisan scripts are substituted for genuine, critical reflection.

If truth exists at all in this debate, then it is likely to lie in the relatively austere domains of philosophy and theology. This doesn’t mean the questions are thereby rendered straightforward; even shorn of their inevitable political accretions, they remain far more vexing than many people recognize. Had I myself been asked these questions several years ago, I would have considered the answers absurdly self-evident: Christians and Muslims are most certainly not in contact with the same God, whether referentially or by means of (attempted) worship; above all, I would have argued that the doctrine of the Trinity presents an insuperable theological barrier to harmonisation.

The passage of time, however, has led to a certain mellowing. Whilst I hesitate to reject my earlier position entirely, I think the subject demands a response that navigates the relevant issues in a more discrete, nuanced – even tentative – manner. It is precisely this kind of approach that I shall adopt in the following post, as I engage in a somewhat recursive conversation with those who have applied themselves to the matter. Where partisan loyalties have frustrated past debates, philosophical and theological reflection can encourage precisely the kind of intellectual sobriety that is so often lacking.

One quick caveat before moving on. Throughout this essay, I will be focusing primarily on the concept of reference, as opposed to the richer, more layered activity associated with worship. I regard those as distinct (yet deeply related and overlapping) acts: simply referring to something is not necessarily the same, of course, as venerating it. Even so, worship logically requires the success of denotation, and is in fact a subset of that broader intentional category. Many people in these debates have simply jumped to the question of worship without first considering the prior question of reference. I think it important to prise them apart, in order to avoid unnecessary conflation and confusion. As such, I shall focus on the fundamental issue of reference; time permitting, I will reserve further comments on worship and veneration for a separate post.

Sense and reference

Let’s begin with a common point of discussion. In the course of past debates, people of a more philosophical bent have often reached for the semantic distinction between sense and reference as a way of understanding how Christians and Muslims might well be referring to the same God. First enunciated by the German philosopher, Gottlob Frege, it’s the idea that two or more people can refer to the same object, even if they do so in contrasting ways; the referent or entity in question may be the same, but the expressions used to “present” it linguistically may differ. A stock example is the way the planet Venus is described as “the morning star” and “the evening star”, depending on the time at which it is viewed. Or, to borrow an analogy from the world of comic books, Superman, Clark Kent, and Kal-El all refer to the same individual, despite differences in designation. Simply using contrasting expressions, therefore, doesn’t automatically entail that the subject of such expressions isn’t one and the same thing.

Proponents of the view that Christians and Muslims refer to the same God would say that something similar obtains here. Even if the followers of Christ and Muhammed describe God differently – “God” and “Allah”, respectively – it doesn’t necessarily follow that they aren’t at least referring to the same deity. As the Superman example demonstrates, it’s possible for descriptions of an object to differ in sense, without demanding a corresponding distinction in reference. A difference in linguistic expression is, in other words, logically compatible with sameness of referent. As the yea-sayers might argue, Muslims and Christians are talking fundamentally about the same being, despite certain terminological differences; “Allah” and “God” (or “Yahweh”) are, on this view, different designations for what is the one entity.

All this is true, so far as it goes. But as the philosopher, Bill Vallicella, observes, whilst a difference in sense is logically consistent with sameness of reference, it’s also consistent with substantial difference: Cassius Clay and Muhammed Ali are the same person; Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau, by contrast, are not. Vallicella also notes, by way of his own example, that sufficiently large differences in sense can create a cumulative difference in reference. Say two people use “God” to describe their respective conceptualisations of the deity. The first person uses his chosen label to denote a transcendent, necessary being who created everything distinct from himself, and preserves the entire panoply of existent reality at every moment. The second person, by contrast, uses his preferred designation to refer to a contingent being who exists within the space-time universe, and who fashioned our world out of pre-existing matter – a kind of Platonic demiurge, as it were. As Vallicella rightly avers, a being cannot be both contingent and necessary; as such, the people in this analogy cannot be said to be referring to the same entity.

This wouldn’t, by itself, provide warrant for the sceptic (although I’m not suggesting that Vallicella is necessarily arguing in this direction). It leaves unsaid just what differences are required for a distinction in linguistic presentation to lead to a corresponding divergence of referents. In the example cited above, the differences are so great and so obvious – i.e., the respective natures of the entities in question are fundamentally incompatible – that one can be justified in saying that the two interlocutors part ways in their objects of reference. By contrast, whilst Christians and Muslims differ on some important aspects of their respective understandings of God/Allah, adherents to these religions espouse a basic monotheism that is similar in key respects (transcendence, sovereignty, eternality, immateriality, etc.). The analogy, therefore, may not have quite the same force if applied to the question at hand, precisely because the contingent-necessary/transcendent-immanent distinctions alluded to earlier do not obtain here (I’ll return to the issue of shared monotheism simpliciter, and whether it provides warrant for saying Christians and Muslims refer to the same God).

Nevertheless, I think Vallicella’s essential point is valid: the sense-reference distinction doesn’t actually get one very far. At best, it might compel someone to migrate from occupying a negative position on the question, to a form of agnosticism.

Assessing some common analogies

As the last analogy above demonstrates, it’s sometimes the case that two (or more) individuals can refer to what is putatively the same object, only to find that their respective beliefs diverge so widely that sameness of referent is simply impossible. But some argue that even where one person’s understanding conflicts with another’s, both parties may nonetheless enjoy a shared object of reference. The philosopher, Francis Beckwith, has argued in just such a fashion. He offers as an example a scenario in which two women, Lois Lane and Lana Lang, are both infatuated with Superman. Lois correctly believes Superman to be a native Kryptonian, whilst Lana erroneously thinks he is a native Kansan, born to his human parents, Martha and Jonathan Kent. Beckwith goes on to assert that even though Lois’ and Lana’s beliefs about Superman are incompatible, and even though Lana holds incorrect beliefs about the object of her affections, they nonetheless refer to one and the same individual.

A similar example (deployed by the philosopher, Edward Feser) concerns a sharply-dressed man drinking from a Martini glass at a soiree. One person, spying the man from across the room, incorrectly thinks he is drinking a Martini. A second person, however, rightly believes him to be drinking only water. However, it is still the case that both people are referring to the same gentleman, despite holding incompatible beliefs about him (i.e., the contents of his drink), and despite one person being wrong about certain of the man’s properties. Proponents go on to say that although Muslims hold what Christians regard as erroneous beliefs about God, they – like the person who thinks the dapper gent is drinking a Martini – are successfully referring to the same entity.

What to make of these analogies? Do they successfully establish the point that claimants wish to make? I have my doubts. I agree with Lydia McGrew that they are question-begging, for they assume what they are meant to prove. That is, the analogies rest on the presumption that Christians and Muslims are referring to the same God, and reason from there. Take Beckwith’s example first: without the prior supposition that Lana and Lois are both referring to the same man, the analogy loses its force. Within the context of the fictional world created by DC, both women are in touch with Superman, having become acquainted with him personally. We can therefore say that despite incompatible – and indeed, erroneous – beliefs, they are connected to the same person.  But the question as to whether Christians and Muslims are somehow in touch with the same deity is precisely what is at issue, being the axis upon which the entire debate turns.

Moreover, as readers, we occupy a privileged vantage point, which allows us to say that Lana and Lois are indeed referring to the same man. But the same does not apply in the case of God’s identity, for we are all ensconced within the epistemological limits of finite existence – such that the “bird’s-eye” view possible in Beckwith’s Superman analogy is entirely precluded here. The same kind of shared perceptual certainty doesn’t obtain in the case of Christians, Muslims, and God, largely because the ontological status of Superman (again, within the confines of the fictional narrative) is quite different from that of the transcendent Creator. As McGrew rightly notes, the analogy only shows that there are certain times when two people can have diametrically opposing views about an object, and yet still refer successfully to one and the same thing. It establishes nothing more than that.

The same problem afflicts Feser’s “dapper man” analogy. If you and I are looking at the same person at a party, then our external senses allow us to detect, or “lock onto”, a common physical object. This would be so, despite our conflicting beliefs regarding the contents of his Martini glass. Moreover, because of our shared perceptual “grasp” of the man in question, we are able to confirm that conclusion through other forms of publicly-available sense data (e.g., that he’s speaking to a woman in a red dress, that he has a white flower attached to his lapel, that he has a pencil moustache, and so on). But how, I ask, can we do this of God? He is not an object of the senses like the smartly-dressed man, just as he isn’t an object of the senses like Superman is in relation to Lois and Lana. As I observed a moment earlier, his ontological status means that he is not susceptible to perceptual detection; there are no shared sense data to which people can appeal in order to determine whether or not they are successfully referring to him. On the assumption that God exists, his nature is such that he utterly eludes our ability to perceive him with the senses. Whereas men of a certain sartorial cut are denizens of the material order, God is the very foundation of that order. Cognate with this status is his complete transcendence over physical reality, and thus his essential immateriality – qualities that explain why he is not susceptible to detection using one’s normal perceptual apparatus.

As Bill Vallicella observes, “we are not acquainted with God” (where knowledge by acquaintance is being used in a technical sense, to distinguish it from knowledge by description). In the absence of other forms of knowing – e.g., mystical experience of some kind – “we are”, he says, “thrown back upon our concepts of God”. And those concepts cannot be anchored in the same way that shared sense data can, particularly as some of the core aspects of this debate – the most prominent being God’s supposedly triune nature – are believed to be revealed truths. This isn’t to say that Muslims and Christians aren’t successfully referring to the same God; that would represent a certain hastiness in one’s logic. But it is to say that analogies like Feser’s fall short of establishing his case, precisely because of crucial disanalogies between well-dressed men and God.

Allusion to the Christian belief in God’s triunity brings me to another important difference between Feser’s analogy and the issue at hand. Whether a certain man at a party is drinking a Martini or water is of little importance where his essential nature is concerned. Feser himself would likely say that this remains an accidental property of the gentleman. As such, incompatible beliefs over the contents of his glass do not significantly impinge (if at all) on questions concerning his nature or identity. If the same man were drinking something else, or even nothing at all, he would still be the same man, and his nature – according to an Aristotelian like Feser – would be that of a rational animal.[1]

But the elements of Feser’s analogy seem to be unlike those of the current debate. For Christians, God’s triunity isn’t some kind of secondary or accidental property, like a Martini glass nursed at a party. Nor it is a metaphysical adjunct or addition to an already-existent monotheism – as if the divine nature could persist apart from its instantiation as a triunity of divine hypostases. On a Christian view, the Trinity is utterly essential to who God is, such that he does not exist separately from it. Remove his triunity (were that even possible), and you’re not simply left with a radically unitarian deity; metaphysically-speaking, you’re left instead with nothing at all.

In other words, the dispute isn’t over comparatively minor or non-essential properties; they have no bearing on who someone is (even if, under certain circumstances, they may aid identification). Rather, the question hangs on differences that go to the very heart of the divine nature. This might appear to raise the distinct possibility that Christians and Muslims aren’t merely quibbling over theological details; rather, they may well be referring to different things entirely when they use the linguistic token “God”. Of course, I am not quite saying that members of these religions certainly aren’t referring to the same God. But I am led to roughly the same conclusion that I was before: Feser’s analogy provides insufficient grounds to argue that they are.

The Trinity: an insurmountable obstacle?

I want to linger on the Trinity a little longer, for whether the doctrine prevents Muslims and Christians from referring to the same God invariably underlies competing positions. Driven by their uncompromising belief in Tawhid, or God’s unitary nature, Muslims utterly reject the idea of the Trinity as a lapse into polytheism. On the other side of the divide, a number of (usually conservative) Christian commentators are convinced that anyone who denies God’s triune being cannot legitimately be denoting the same deity as orthodox followers of Christ. Talk of sense and reference, or of analogies intended to suggest identity of denotation (despite diverging beliefs about the object in question) is ultimately irrelevant: God’s triunity, according to some, makes it obvious that Christians and Muslims are treading completely unrelated paths in their conceptions of God.

Commenting on the issue, Bruce McCormack, a theologian at Yale, sketched a possible case for why Christians and Muslims do not worship – or indeed, refer to – the same God, building that case on the bedrock of Trinitarian conceptions of God’s nature (note well that this isn’t McCormack’s personal opinion). In his essay,[2] McCormack rightly observes that on a Christian view, God is essentially triune. The concept of the Trinity cannot be arrived at simply by adding “three-ness” to a prior commitment to divine oneness. For the follower of Christ, triunity is woven into his very being. It isn’t a kind of “fourth” quality in which the members of the godhead participate (as three human beings might be said to “participate” in a common human nature distinct from any one of them). Again, the Christian God is constituted by his tri-personal nature. All of this is to say that anyone breezily claiming that Christians and Muslims do indeed refer to the same God needs to reckon with the possible implications of what Christians regard as God’s radical, thoroughgoing trinitarian character.

It might seem, then, that Muslims – who adhere to God’s absolute oneness – and Christians do not refer to the same God, given they hold antithetical doctrines about him. McCormack’s comments on what exactly it means for God to be triune appear simply to deepen that divide. Similarly, Bill Vallicella has objected that one being cannot satisfy both triunity and non-triunity – meaning that a Christian and a Muslim cannot, in his view, be directing their beliefs and intentional states towards the same entity. Whilst Vallicella may be more circumspect than others, he appears to be fairly settled in his view that Muslims fail to refer to any extralinguistic entity.

However, there are three reasons why I am not quite satisfied. In fact, they may even provide grounds for saying that Christians and Muslims, for all their key differences, ultimately do refer to the same God.

Metaphysics, logic, and God’s triunity

First, whilst God’s triune nature is for Christians an inescapable part of who he is, it’s also the case that one can make a logical (as opposed to metaphysical) distinction between this and his basic unity.[3] Indeed, the fact that many of the early Christians held to monarchical views of God suggests as much (to say nothing of contemporary Christians, who are likely to adhere to a de facto Monarchianism. Are they, too, referring to a different God?). What I mean is that despite the importance of the doctrine – and behind that, God’s essentially trinitarian being – it remains possible to logically distinguish God’s “three-ness” and his oneness. To put the point in a slightly different way, monotheism is logically prior to trinitarianism; one must first have a concept of God’s fundamental unity, uniqueness, transcendence, etc., before one can then conceive of the Trinity. If one can logically differentiate these two dimensions of God’s nature; and if his unity is the logical predicate for anything else that might be true of him; then it seems possible to be able to refer successfully to him simply by acknowledging the fundamentals of monotheism.

As such, it may be sufficient for Muslims to hold to basic monotheistic beliefs (God as a unity, transcendent, eternal, the creator of everything distinct from himself, etc.), since they alone might allow one to say that both the followers of Muhammed and Christ refer to the same deity. The former may deny the Trinity, to be sure; but because triune depictions of God are logically “contained” within broader, more general conceptions of monotheism – conceptions that are common to both religious systems – successful reference is perhaps possible, even if crucial Christian distinctives are rejected.

This is where Vallicella’s “contradiction” argument, alluded to above, perhaps falls short. Although it is true that no being can be both triune and non-triune, triunity and monotheism are not exhaustively opposed in the same way that other polarities are. A number cannot be both odd and even, for oddness logically banishes its opposite. Similarly, contingency and necessity, to which I referred earlier, are mutually exclusive. But whilst contingency excludes necessity (and visa-versa), triunity and monotheism don’t cancel each other out in the relevant way. Once again, trinitarian conceptions of God build on basic monotheism; a conception of God that is radically unitarian may be woefully incomplete on a Christian reading, but it does not thereby preclude the possibility of additional theological constructions along trinitarian lines. On the other hand, there is simply no sense to be made of the notions that (e.g.) an odd number is built upon the basic idea of evenness, or that a being’s contingency might be grounded in necessity.

Distinguishing God in himself and our knowledge of him

The second observation bleeds into the first, having been suggested by the fact that one can logically distinguish between God’s unity (part of basic monotheism) and his trinitarian nature. Such distinctions allow a person to develop concepts regarding the former without determining the plausibility of the latter. There seems to be a logical difference, then, between God as he is and the way we might conceptualize him. Edward Feser asks us to consider a scenario whereby God is essentially triune, but never undertook any of the actions that Christians attribute to him (the election of Israel, the incarnation of Christ, the founding of the church, revealing himself as a trinity of divine persons, etc.). Feser rightly argues that all of this is metaphysically possible even though God would remain a trinity. People would only know God in a bare monotheistic sense, but the de-coupling of religious epistemology from God’s nature ad intra implies that this would not prevent them from successfully referring to him. It shows that whilst God is, of metaphysical necessity, triune (at least according to Christians), one can still conceive of him apart from that triunity; the Trinity may entail something vital about God’s being, but it does not entail that “we cannot conceptualize” him in non-trinitarian terms. To think otherwise, Feser notes, is to confuse epistemology and metaphysics.

The Jewish experience

My third and final point acts as something of a real-world proving ground for the above theoretical observations. It concerns the key question of Jewish understandings of God. As several commentators have observed, the experience of the Jewish people tends to undercut the claim that the Trinity ultimately separates Muslims and Christians in their references to God. For Jews, just as much as Muslims, deny that God is a trinity of persons. Those who are quick to say that Muslims refer to a different “God” as a result of their rejection of the doctrine are also likely to insist that this doesn’t present a barrier to successful reference in the case of Jews. But if both sets of religious believers adhere to a radically unitarian view of God, why is it only Muslims that are said to fail in their attempted references? Some have argued the “genetic” link between the Jewish religion and the sect that eventually became Christianity is enough to ensure identity of reference: because observant Jews follow Yahweh as depicted in the Old Testament, then they are referring to the God whom Christians believe revealed himself climactically in the person of Jesus Christ. Lydia McGrew makes this observation, and suggests that there is a fundamental “asymmetry” between Judaism and Islam at precisely this point: whilst the God in whom Jews believe chose the children of Abraham and established a covenant relationship with them, no such relationship exists between him and Muslims.

This is certainly true, but I’m not sure how germane it is to the debate. If it’s the case that a rejection of the Trinity means that one fails to refer to the same God as Christians, then I don’t know why Jews and Muslims ought to be considered differently – Abrahamic covenants notwithstanding. As far as I can see, either the Trinity is essential for reference, or it isn’t. If a Jewish person denies the Trinity, and acceptance of that doctrine is (as proponents hold) necessary for successful denotation, how does Yahweh’s historic pact with Abraham change such a state of affairs? Rejection of the Trinity, on this view, surely entails failure of reference, regardless of other considerations. I myself can’t help but think that the limiting principle of God’s triunity is being inconsistently applied.

Of course, McGrew does admit that in a sense, Jews and Christians “worship” (her word) different gods,[4] precisely because of differences concerning the Trinity. But she maintains that the historic link between Judaism and Christianity entails a certain commonality of reference. Now, Muslims traditionally believe that God acted in the way the Old Testament describes, just as Jews and Christians do. They also believe, of course, that God revealed himself climactically to Muhammed, which both Christians and Jews deny. McGrew says that this, along with a categorical rejection of the Trinity, is enough to sever any lingering connection they might have with the one, true God.

I am inclined to think that McGrew over-extends herself at this point. Again, if modern-day Jews can still successfully refer to God, despite denying what Christians see as his essential nature, why not Muslims? A more proportionate view of the situation might acknowledge the grave deficiencies contained in Muslim conceptions of God (in regards to both his actions and his nature), without thereby taking the further step of suggesting that followers of Muhammed fail to stand in referential relationship with the same God as Christians. Although the Trinity is, from a Christian point of view, essential to God’s being, there is still a distinction between mistaken – even “deeply mistaken” – beliefs about the one true God, and referring to another deity altogether.

Are overlapping beliefs relevant?

It’s true that some have argued that the kind of position I have just sketched inevitably leads to a diluted or “generic” form of monotheism. Bill Vallicella seems to suggest that the overlap between Christians and Muslims – something he cheerfully admits – is a mere abstraction, and doesn’t actually refer to the concrete, determinate deity in question. An analogy might help to flesh this idea out a little more. It’s possible for two people to refer to the abstract idea of the President of the United States via a description of his powers and constitutional responsibilities, all while failing to denote the same, concrete individual. There may be some generic overlap between their respective descriptions, even if the first person is actually referring to Abraham Lincoln, whilst the second person is referring to, say, Richard Nixon. In similar fashion, Christians and Muslims may well share some common assumptions regarding God’s nature, but divergences concerning his triunity (so the argument might go) entail nothing more than reference to an attenuated concept.

I don’t want to dismiss Vallicella’s objection entirely, but once again, I am drawn to the notion that the logical distinction between monotheism simpliciter and its trinitarian sub-species implies that one can successfully refer to God, even if he should fall short of a complete account of the deity. The analogy I have used draws on something of which there have been multiple instantiations, for there have been many presidents since the founding of the United States. Christians and Muslims, however, coincide in their belief that only one God exists to whom they both claim to refer.[5] In the case of American commanders-in-chief, it’s possible to distinguish between an abstracted notion of “President of the United States” and the particular men who have fulfilled that role. I don’t think the same is true here: unlike the office of the President and the distinct individuals who have occupied it, God’s “whatness” is, on a monotheistic view, identical with who he is. In fact, given the radical uniqueness Christians and Muslims (as well as Jews) ascribe to God – which means he cannot be a “member” of a genus, or an instantiation of a general type – I think it well-nigh impossible to find a comparable analogy.

Despite significant differences concerning aspects of God’s nature, Christians and Muslims still maintain a series of shared beliefs: that the deity is utterly distinct from all else; that he is the transcendent, self-sustaining creator of everything; that he is the ultimate source for all things; and so forth. Whilst for Christians, such a depiction is in need of further refinement (given our trinitarianism), it’s accurate as far as it goes. And if it’s true that there is only one deity – i.e., only one metaphysically ultimate being underlying and sustaining all else – then it’s hard to see how Muslims could refer to an abstracted concept that fails to coincide with the concrete particular represented by the appellation “God”. Vallicella writes that the “overlap” between Christ followers and Muslims “is but an abstraction insufficient to determine an identifying reference to a concrete, wholly determinate, particular”. But I would argue that in the case of God, the common ground they occupy is sufficient – precisely because of the monotheistic base to which both religions hold. As Feser has argued, “if someone affirms” the key elements of a (classically) theistic view of God, “then there is at least a strong presumption in favour of the conclusion that he is referring to…the true God”.

Some concluding thoughts

Where does all of this leave me on the question of Muslims, Christians, and the reference to God? It’s perhaps clear that I have moved, ever so tentatively, to the conclusion that adherents from both religions ultimately refer to the same God – and this, despite wide disagreement on some deeply important aspects of his nature and being. As a Christian, I regard the Islamic rejection of the Trinity as deeply erroneous; but notwithstanding the possible significance of God’s essential triunity – a point to which I am not unsympathetic – I think the followers of Muhammed hold to a theological conception that in many crucial respects coincides with a Christian understanding. I don’t think proponents of this view have always mounted the strongest of arguments, and the most common analogies offered fall well short of demonstrating commonality of reference. But on balance, I think that the arguments I have pursued here are probably sufficient to establish the claim that Christians and Muslims are referring to one and the same deity. I would therefore largely agree with the conclusion reached by Reformed theologians, Jeroen de Ridder and Rene van Wondenberg, in their Faith and Philosophy essay:

[The question] doesn’t allow a univocal answer. On the one hand, since belief in the same God requires roughly a certain commitment to the same characterization of God, Jews, Christians, and Muslims do not believe in the same God…On the other hand…the Reformed view can be taken to entail that the word “God” as used in the three religions refers to the same God and, differences notwithstanding, there is certainly striking partial overlap in their characterization of God and his nature.

I should also say that whilst I don’t ultimately share Bill Vallicella’s conclusion on the matter, I agree with him that an obvious answer either way is extremely difficult; apart from anything else, the fact that God is not an object of sense perception means that assessing claims of shared reference are far from straightforward. Moreover, Vallicella is surely correct when he says that people who think otherwise simply haven’t engaged in the arduous process of intellectual and philosophical reflection. It is largely a matter of weighing probabilities, as opposed to tight, mathematical certainty; of cautiously rendering judgment, based on sincere and genuine engagement with views both consistent and discordant. All participants would do well to bear such advice in mind.

[1] Of course, not all accidental properties are so unimportant where the question of successful reference is concerned. For example, skin colour could be seen as an accidental property, in that the amount of melanin a person possesses has no bearing on his essential humanity. But imagine if we were talking about a certain individual, someone I believed was white and you believed was black. In that instance, it’s harder to see how we could be referring to the same person.

[2] Unfortunately, McCormack’s essay no longer appears to be available online. My references in this blog post are taken from handwritten notes I made before his piece vanished. You’ll have to trust me that I have faithfully rendered his views! For excerpts and a summary of McCormack’s piece, see this entry at the Faith and Theology blogsite (now defunct).

[3] Drawing such distinctions between various aspect of God’s nature is, of course, different from saying that those aspects are metaphysically distinct (and therefore theoretically separable). This means that there is no conflict between what I said before, concerning the constitutional nature of God’s triunity, and what I argue in the present paragraph.

[4] Although McGrew discusses the issue in terms of worship, her TGC essay seems to imply that Christians and Muslims do not even refer to the same deity.

[5] This is different from Michael Rea’s “one God” argument that Christians and Muslims refer to, and even worship, the same being. If I understand Rea correctly, he suggests that because Christians and Muslims both maintain that there is one God, they are logically referring to the same entity. He writes: “Christians and Muslims have very different beliefs about God; but they agree on this much: there is exactly one God. This common point of agreement is logically equivalent to thesis that all Gods are the same God. In other words, everyone who worships a God worships the same God, no matter how different their views about God might be.”

This seems to me to be incorrect. Surely there are some views about God that should make us think that two people have failed to refer to the same being. For example, how can it be that a devotee of Baruch Spinoza (who essentially held to a form of pantheism) and a conservative Muslim are referring to one and the same entity when their beliefs are so radically different? Or, to use a slightly silly example, we might imagine someone who says that there is only one God and that he is Al Pacino. How is it the case, then, that the Pacino worshiper and an orthodox Christian are in touch with the same deity? One believes that a person of flesh and blood, who is material, in time, and subject to change is God; the other, however, believes in a God who is the creator of everything distinct from himself, the unsourced cause of all there is, timeless, self-sufficient, etc. These two conceptions of deity are fundamentally at odds, yet on Rea’s view, we’d have to say that both adherents are in referential relationship with the same God. I submit that Rea’s minimalist criterion is simply insufficient for what he wants to claim – and, moreover, an example of logical haste.

By contrast, my argument rests on the understanding that because Muslims and Christians affirm key, overlapping beliefs about God, and because they also insist that this God is one, unique, etc., then it’s difficult to see how they could be referring to different instantiations of the same category (i.e., “god-ness” or divinity). This is much more specific than Rea’s rather elastic argument, resting as it does on those distinguishing convictions that Muslims and Christians share.

Re-thinking the Virgin Birth

Introduction

The birth of a new child truly is extraordinary, being perhaps the closest thing that our secular, materialistic world has to a miracle: a small cluster of cells, endowed with an innate propensity towards life, is mysteriously transformed by nature’s unseen hand into a living, breathing human being. Witnessing the emergence of an infant – writhing and crying and seeking comfort – out of what was once inert matter is something to behold.

If people of all stripes are prone to seeing faint reflections of the transcendent in such an occurrence, then Christians should surely celebrate the true miracle of the one birth (or more precisely, conception) that could genuinely be called “unique”. Of course, I am referring to the birth of Christ himself, an event that his followers will soon have the privilege of commemorating. Its annual recurrence means that Christians are accorded at least one opportunity each year to formally mark an event of epochal significance. Alongside nativity plays and Christmas hymns will be dramatic readings of Matthew and Luke, as the story of the Christ-child coming into this world is rehearsed through song and word and sign. For many, it is still a time of sober reflection and humble gratitude.

But amidst the yuletide pageantry, it’s easy to forget just how momentous the birth of Christ was. Indeed, the very regularity of the tradition can induce a conventional, almost unthinking, approach to it: we hurriedly attend our Christmas services, sing (or more likely, mumble) the relevant songs, and laugh good-naturedly at stilted acting or forgotten lines. Meanwhile, our minds are straining ahead, occupied with what many of us perceive (perhaps subconsciously) to be the real purpose of Christmas – presents and feasting and games of backyard cricket. None of these things are wrong in themselves, to be sure. Far from it. Nevertheless, it can mean that recalling God’s gracious inbreaking via the person of his Son is inadvertently relegated to a mere step along the way, rather than being cherished as the very reason we celebrate Christmas in the first place. To the extent that this is true – and in all honesty, I think each of us has been guilty of it – then it should not be. Perhaps if we were to examine Jesus’ birth afresh, we might then be in a better position to celebrate it with renewed fulsomeness.

Three Key Categories

There are a number of categories that can help us think more clearly about the birth of Christ – conceptual aids, if you like, that allow us to grasp more surely its manifold significance. A few such aids immediately spring to mind. We might refer to them as the union of humanity and divinity, a signpost of new creation, and a revelation of true kingship. These don’t exhaust the event’s meaning, by any means, although they do offer three convenient avenues towards greater understanding. I’ll examine each category in turn.

The Union of Humanity and Divinity

The ministry of Jesus Christ can be interpreted in a dizzying variety of ways. But one of the broad purposes of his appearing was to set in motion the (re-)union of humanity and God. More than that, it was by his own person that this cosmic reconciliation was to be accomplished. The pages of the New Testament are replete with references to what Christ achieved in this regard. In his second letter to the Corinthian church, for example, the apostle Paul waxes lyrical about the fact that in Christ, God was reconciling himself to the world (i.e., humanity; cf. 2 Cor 5:19). In a similar vein, 1 Timothy 2:5 refers to Jesus as the “one God and the one mediator between God and mankind”. These are just two of a multitude of texts that could be cited.

Reconciliation within a Christian schema, however, far exceeds the resumption of cordial relations between previously-estranged parties. For the writers of the NT, it means nothing less than the transformative union of God with his people. A battery of images is deployed, which try and convey the substantial nature of this divine-human concord. Paul compares the joining together of Christ with his church (and thus, with each individual Christian) to the “one-flesh” union between husband and wife. So profoundly intimate is the relationship between the Messiah and his people – one that is secured, of course, via the operation of the Spirit – that the apostle can use, as an analogy, the deep and comprehensive unity of the spousal bond (Eph 5:31-32). Or what about the Fourth Evangelist? In a stunning development of “new temple” theology, the Johannine Jesus speaks of making his “home” in the one who believes in him and does his will (John 15:23). This, too, surpasses mere unity of purpose or direction, and veers into the province of ontology [1]. It is why the author of 2 Peter could write that part of the goal of the Christian life is, remarkably, participation in the “divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). This isn’t to say that Christians somehow become divine. But the consistent witness of the NT is that those who are “in Christ” are consequently joined to the Triune God, in a process that entails the fundamental re-ordering of their beings.

I say all this by way of context. Jesus’ birth represents this union, this “marriage”, in his own person. And whilst the incarnation (i.e., the act by which the eternal logos took on human flesh) was possible without a miraculous birth, his spirit-generated conception dramatizes the joining together of those two natures – divinity and humanity – thereby foreshadowing the salvific reality his people will enjoy as they become temples for his presence. This is no arbitrary point. We shouldn’t forget that just as the NT is adamant that God’s people will experience immersion in the unsearchable depths of divine reality, it is equally convinced that Jesus Christ exemplifies (and indeed, enables) this kind of life. He is the pristine model for a truly human existence – human, because it is joined to, grounded in, and pervaded by, God’s nature and life. What is true of him will, in a sense, be true of his people as well (e.g., 1 Cor 15:47-49).

Of course, Jesus was (and is) unique, in that he is truly God and truly man; as I have already noted, the telos of the Christian life is reformation and renewal via a mystical bond with the divine, not divinization in a literal sense. Still, we can look to Jesus’ conception and birth – where God graciously imparted his own life into the womb of a young Jewess (Luke 1:34-35) – as an embodied reminder that it was always the Creator’s intention to forge a people who would live in perfect and constant communion with him. It was there, in the darkness of that womb, that the Creator “stitched together” (as it were) two, apparently irreconcilable categories of being [2]. The manner of Jesus’ first advent was at once authentically human and entirely the product of divine grace – signalling, in concrete form, a believer’s transfiguration as he or she is drawn into the divine nature.

Earlier parts of Scripture bear faint witness to this glorious prospect. Genesis 1-2, with its positioning of God’s image-bearers as the capstone of his creative work, is one of the more familiar texts in this regard. But the Nativity signals something far more substantive for those who are found to be in Christ. Again, what it does is provide us with a vivid picture of the goal that lies at the end of God’s redemptive enterprise: the establishment of a body of individuals who have not only conformed themselves to his will, but who are united to him in an act of spiritual betrothal.

A Signpost for New Creation

The prospective “marriage” between God and each believer (such that those who are being saved might enjoy the life-giving permeation of divine energy) is one element in the wider goal of liberating creation from its “bondage to decay” (cf. Rom 8:21). Here, too, the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth is instructive. In addition to providing us with a picture of that perfect union between the human and the divine, the Nativity also acts as a signpost of new creation. To be sure, the Bible’s salvific narrative climaxes with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. It was there, and not at the point of his birth, that sin and death were broken; moreover, with the raising of Jesus from the dead, new creation truly began, breaking into the present, decaying world. One might even say that from a Christian perspective, history pivots on the resurrection, for in that event, we discover the commencement of the new age in microcosm – i.e., in the resurrected body of one man. Christ’s birth did not change the course of history per se, so to that extent, it differs structurally from the event of his resurrection. Nonetheless, it points (however unobtrusively) to the dawning of that greater reality. The birth of Jesus represented a fresh act of the Creator God, who imbued life into a willing Mary. With it, something unprecedented happened, as the fecundity of the divine took root in a broken, earthen world. This wasn’t simply the product of the created order’s internal drives and forces. Rather, it was the result of an apocalyptic work of God, who pierced the veil of death shrouding the old world with the shear of fresh life. His was an incursion into creation, achieving what no natural process could. In this way, then, the virgin birth continues to offer Christians an incarnate symbol that directs them to creation’s renewal – something that includes, of course, God’s reclaimed image-bearers, who experience their own supernatural birth.

This brings me back to the Nativity’s significance as it applies specifically to the people of God. If Jesus’ birth unveils the goal for redeemed human beings (whose lives are being conformed to his), then it also offers up a symbolic parallel for the spiritual “new birth” that every Christian enjoys. Latent in that term is an idea drawn from the third chapter of John’s Gospel. During a night-time rendezvous, the Johannine Jesus declares to an uncomprehending Nicodemus that anyone seeking entry into God’s kingdom “must be born again” (John 3:3, 5). With the assured finality of God’s incarnate logos, he claims that this is the only way a person can enter salvation. What Jesus seems to be saying is that the believer must undergo such a radical change of one’s being, one’s nature, that it can only be described as being “born again”. It is a deep-rooted transformation that God alone can accomplish (which explains why the phrase is sometimes rendered as “born from above”).

The beginning of one’s life in God is indeed akin to a new birth, for it represents a comprehensive break with the old world of sin and death. Jesus’ birth – and behind that, his conception – offers a concrete sign of this reality. Commenting on John’s theological perspective in the first few chapters of his gospel, the theologian, A.N.S. Lane, wrote that the evangelist may have even drawn a deliberate correlation between the believer’s regeneration and Christ’s virginal birth (cf. John 1:13) [3]. In any case, it is both a signal that new life had been unleashed upon creation, and, within that process of renewal, a witness to the Christian’s own “transfer” from one realm to another. The virgin birth reminds us that what is required is nothing less than the commencement of a new form of existence – a “supernatural begetting” (C.K. Barrett) – wrought by God’s (re)generative power. At this point, I can do no better than quote from N.T. Wright, who wrote about the miraculous nature of Christ’s birth thus:

“And if we believe that the God we’re talking about is the creator of the world, who longs to rescue the world from its corruption and decay, then an act of real new creation, anticipating in fact the great moment of Easter itself, might just be what we should expect…it is the notion that a new world really might be starting up within the midst of the old…”

A Revelation of the True King

So far, I have examined the birth of Jesus using the categories of biblical and systematic theology. Its function as a revelation of Christ’s kingship, on the other hand, is tied more closely to the biblical narratives themselves. Matthew, for instance, has Magi from the East visit Jesus, who worship him and present gifts as a form of tribute (Matt 2:1-12). The royal overtones of those acts are difficult to miss. The First Evangelist also quotes from Micah 5:2, applying that messianic (read: kingly) prophecy to the remarkable baby born to Mary and Joseph. Luke, for his part, sets his infancy narrative within the context of Roman history. His reference to an imperial decree, ordering all subjects of the Roman Empire to return to their ancestral lands for a census (Luke 2:1-3), subtly establishes a contrast between the earthly power of Caesar and the cosmic power – then hidden – of the world’s true Lord.

Strictly speaking, a miraculous birth was not necessary to ground an acclamation of Jesus’ kingship. However, it witnesses to the unique form that kingship took. Not only was Christ Israel’s king and a rightful heir to the throne of David; not only was he the nation’s messianic saviour; he was also her (and the world’s) transcendent king, having come in the flesh – a remarkable fulfilment of Yahweh’s promise to return to his wayward, exiled people (note the use of Isaiah 40:3ff, not only in Matthew in Luke, but in Mark and John as well). As I have already suggested, the virgin birth reveals the perfect union of humanity with divinity in the person of Jesus. But in so doing, it testifies to the fact of Jesus’ cosmic lordship.

Luke’s retelling of the event is illuminating in this regard. In his account, an angel appears to Mary and declares to her that she will bear a son. The language used to describe the still-future child is of a clearly regal nature: “Son of the Most High”, a descendant of David, and king over an eternal dynasty (Luke 1:30-33). When Mary asks how all this can be (given the fact of her virginity) the angel states that God’s own spirit and presence will “overshadow” her (v.35), enabling the young Jewess to conceive. The second half of verse 35 is crucial. Application of the title “Son of God” to Jesus is somehow linked to his spiritual conception, as if the latter is reason for the former being given (cf. v.35b: “So…”). Now, “Son of God” was a term familiar within Jewish culture, given its traditional connection to royal/Davidic figures. This is seen, for instance, in a passage like Psalm 2:7, which bears some affinity with 2 Samuel 7:14. By the time of Jesus’ advent, it had come to be associated with hopes for a messianic deliverer. However, the title was also used of the emperor at the time, Caesar Augustus – the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who himself had been formally deified after his assassination in 44BC. It is no accident, then, that Luke lodges his birth story within the context of a manifestation of imperial power; the fact that the emperor appropriated the status of God’s son only serves to sharpen the implied contrast I have already noted.

Paired with the promise of a miraculous, spirit-impelled birth, Luke’s use of “Son of God” functions as an important titular signpost, not merely to Jesus’ status as Israel’s anointed liberator, but to something far loftier. Like the other evangelists, Luke often employs the phrase in an elevated sense; as his own gospel unfolds, it’s apparent that Jesus conceives of his relationship with God in a way that only a son would with his father. It was a relationship that stretched back to the very beginning of his earthly life (and beyond); an intimate reality, in other words, to which the virgin birth testified. The NT scholar, Darrel Bock, observesd that “the presence of a divine element in [the Lukan] Jesus’ birth” suggests that for the Third Evangelist, “Jesus is from God in a unique way” (emphasis mine). It provided evidence that Christ was not merely sent by God, as an emissary might be commissioned by his master, but that he proceeded from the eternal Godhead as someone who, remarkably, shared the same nature.

The Lukan rendition of the virgin birth vividly shows that Jesus’ sonship was not exhausted by the prerogatives associated with mundane royalty. To be sure, it encompassed such notions, such that it was co-extensive with the belief that he was the promised Davidic heir. But that status – and the title through which it came to be expressed – exceeded all previous understandings of the concept, touching upon the very being of the transcendent Creator. Although Luke does not greatly emphasise the ontological overtones of Jesus’ sonship in his birth narrative (and is certainly not as explicit as, say, the Gospel of John), the basic contours of his theological convictions can still be detected. Whatever declarations others might have made regarding a unique, filial relationship with the Deity (particularly Caesar), they remained mere charlatans – parodies of the reality to which they aspired. Eclipsing them all was the world’s true sovereign, who alone could claim divine “parentage”: singularly conceived by God’s own creative power, and born to a poor Jewish couple on the margins of imperial society.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this little essay has revealed new insights into the significance of Jesus’ birth. Much more could be said, of course. But in it, I have tried to set down some markers for how to think about this momentous event. This is important amidst ongoing scepticism, even among Christians. In some quarters, the virgin birth is relegated to the status of mere myth or legend (where the term “myth” is synonymous with what is historically dubious). Aside from a philosophical prejudice against miracles, such a conclusion seems to be driven by the unstated assumption that Jesus’ birth constitutes an act of arbitrary wonderworking – and as such, is unworthy of God. But as I have sought to demonstrate, the virgin birth pulsates with theological meaning. It was not the work of a capricious deity, keen only to advertise his supernatural “bag of tricks”. Rather, it offered, and continues to offer, a window into the nature of the One who even now presides over creation. In his birth, Jesus was revealed as the true Son of God, who proceeded from the Father to assume his rightful role as saviour and regent. Moreover, the Nativity brims with the promise that those who are “in” him – who yield to his loving authority – will shed their old lives and enjoy life in union with their redeemer. These are things we can, and should, joyfully celebrate this Christmas.

[1] Using a term like “ontology” in relation to a believer’s relationship with God is always fraught with danger. Let me emphasise that I do not want to suggest that as Christians are conformed to the likeness of the Son, or participate in the divine nature, they thereby become gods (“quasi-divine”) themselves. This is idolatry. However, one gets the sense when reading the NT that what is envisioned is a substantial transformation of the redeemed individual, down to the very roots of his or her nature. Indeed, when Paul spoke of those in Christ being “new creations” (2 Cor 5:17), I think he intended his words to be read as more than mere metaphor or hyperbole.

[2] Again, care is required, lest one takes the birth of Christ to be an instance of two natures being brought together in such a way that the resultant individual is half-human, half-God: a tertium quid, but neither wholly human, nor wholly divine. This is not what I am aiming at with my (admittedly) metaphorical use of language. I merely mean to suggest that the virgin birth, in witnessing to the union of divinity and humanity in the person of Christ, functions as something of a symbol and pattern for Christians’ own lives.

[3] It’s quite possible that John was aware of a tradition concerning the unusual circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. See John 8:41b.

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.

Meaning and God’s Attributes

My last few blog posts have tackled some fairly controversial issues, which have a habit of arousing very strong emotions. The intensity of those debates can tax both the mind and the soul, so every once in a while a change of pace is warranted. This brings me to the topic of the present piece, namely, the nature of God. Lately, I have been reflecting on some rather thorny questions concerning God and certain of his attributes. Some may think this a boring, irrelevant or altogether esoteric matter. However, if (as I believe) God is the very foundation and source of all there is — the ground of all being, as it were — then it’s difficult to think of anything more exciting, or important. Moreover, as a Christian, it is my duty (and indeed, a rare pleasure) to try and develop as clear a picture of the Creator as my finite mind will permit.

I don’t intend to examine the existence of God per se. Instead, I want to explore two related features of the Christian conception of God, the problems they can pose for understanding, and the means by which they might be illuminated in new and fresh ways. I am referring, on the one hand, to God’s dual nature — at once transcendent and immanent — whilst on the other, to the uniquely Christian declaration that Christ is the principle of unity within creation. These are heady concepts, to be sure; a word about each is therefore in order.

To begin, Christianity insists that God is simultaneously transcendent over creation and immanent within it. Other monotheisms — Judaism, for example — share this way of talking about God, though the way the doctrine is expressed and extrapolated in those traditions may be somewhat different. Christians consistently affirm God’s complete and utter sovereignty over the creation; creation itself relies on his conserving activity to remain in being, moment-by-moment. Given he is the metaphysical ground of all there is, God is not confined by what he has created: he is not limited by it, or susceptible to its influences (unless he deigns to be so influenced). He is radically distinct from the world he has fashioned, operating, if you like, on his own, unique plane of being. Additionally, God is neither exhausted nor fully comprehended by our conceptual categories; the frames of reference we may have devised to understand him are necessarily limited, for their “object” transcends them all. Indeed, for all their intellectual and theological value (and they can be very valuable), those categories cannot possibly capture a being — Being itself — who is by nature completely unbound by finite reality.

At the same time, God is no absentee landlord; rather, he deeply involved in this creation. The world over which God presides is filled at every point by the divine presence; God’s immanence means that he is intimately related to  it, permeating every nook and cranny so that creation brims with his essence. This dual nature is beautifully captured by Isaiah 55:9-11, which speaks of Yahweh’s purposes being higher than those of man — “as the heavens are higher than the earth” — even as he sends out his word, his wisdom, into the world to nourish his works. It is also why the Apostle Paul can declare in Ephesians 4:6 that God is not only “over all”, but “through all and in all”.*

The second attribute is, to my mind, probably more difficult to comprehend. It is the somewhat astounding theological claim that Christ, the Word and Wisdom of God, is the principle of unity within creation — that is, the One in whom “all things hold together”, as Paul declares (Col 1:17). The doctrine bears some resemblance to certain strains of Greco-Roman philosophy, even if its formulation under the aegis of apostolic and patristic thought was quite unprecedented. Like the ancient Stoics, the writers of the NT held that the phenomenal world is not simply a random, unintelligible mass: they affirmed the belief that it is an ordered place, pervaded by a principle of rationality which bequeaths to it unity and coherency. For the apostolic writers, this principle has an intrinsically personal — indeed, relational — dimension. Whether this was expressed in the Johannine concept of the incarnate Logos (John 1:1, 14), or by way of Paul’s wisdom Christology (e.g., Col 1:17), the writers of the NT declared that the world is pervaded by the cosmic Christ — God’s very word, wisdom and mind. Borrowing ideas from the OT’s wisdom tradition (e.g., Prov 8:22ff), they claimed that Christ is just that principle of rationality to which the Stoics and others referred. As the medium of God’s creative prowess, he provides the unifying structure for what would otherwise be a fragmented or chaotic realm; he draws together the various members of the created world into a harmonious whole, “sustaining” it in power (Hebrews 1:3).

It should be noted that these doctrines are deeply intertwined. Christ’s role as the principle of unity within creation presupposes a God who is both intimately involved with it, whilst remaining utterly sovereign. Indeed, if Christ, a reflection of the divine character, was not transcendent, then he could not be the sustaining, unifying cause that underlies creation; he would simply be a finite part of it, as little able to govern all things as we are. If he was not immanent, he would not — could not — be the principle of unity holding the disparate parts of creation together. He could not be the metaphysical “cement” that inheres, and adheres, all things. Conversely, God’s dual nature comes to full expression in the cosmic Christ’s powerful conserving activity, as he penetrates and upholds the created order. His immanence is not amorphous — a vague and nebulous presence — but guarantees the wise and ordered nature of the world we inhabit. Similarly, his transcendence does not entail distance, but omnipresence, so that everything is imbued with, and held together by, his own effulgence.

Intertwined, complementary…and also rather arcane**. However clear these summaries may be, they do not change the fact that we are handling some very enigmatic ideas — ones that have caused an endless parade of philosophers and theologians (not to mention laypeople at large) a great deal of intellectual angst. The fact that God is not an object of sense experience, and so is not susceptible to empirical observation, makes this task even more vexing. Trying to comprehend such stubbornly elusive concepts is like attempting to grasp the rapidly fading tendrils of an early-morning mist. For instance, I’ve tried to offer an intelligible snapshot of the doctrine of Christ as the principle of creation, but how can we understand the truth that lies behind it? In what way does the invisible and immaterial God hold material things together (that is part of the larger question of how an immaterial God interacts with materiality)? How does one actually conceive of the Christian’s claim that the apparently disparate elements of creation find coherency as they are drawn together by, and in, the divine Logos? As for God’s simultaneous transcendence and immanence, this has been a stumbling block to many people, and can appear at first glance to be inherently, embarrassingly, contradictory. As just one example among many, the atheist blogger Austin Cline has argued that at an “irresolvable tension” exists between these two poles of the divine nature. He is of the opinion that something simply cannot be transcendent and immanent simultaneously, and that any affirmation to the contrary forces one into an intellectual muddle.

Theologians and philosophers of a theistic bent have tried to offer solutions to these problems over the centuries. For example, Thomas Aquinas wrote that God’s transcendence actually entails his immanence. Far from being irreconcilable or contradictory, Aquinas argued that they are, in fact, complementary attributes. Because he is the sustaining cause of all that exists (and as such, transcends all things), God must be present — that is, immanent — in order to uphold the entire cosmic production. Moreover, because being is, according to Aquinas, a thing’s fundamental quality, then God must be present “in all things innermostly”. I, for one, think this is quite persuasive. I am also persuaded that, however difficult it may be to think of the world as pervaded by a kind of cosmic rationality (understood in personal terms by Christians), it seems likelier than the atomistic, mechanistic picture favoured by many moderns. At the same time, I also recognize that formulations like Aquinas’ are bound to strike some as recondite as the (apparent) conundrums they are designed to unravel. Is there any way of making these doctrines a little more intelligible? A “real-world” analogy, perhaps, that concretizes what might otherwise appear to be abstract and vaporous? I think there is.

Meaning as an Aid to Understanding

The concept of meaning can act as an aid to understanding as we grapple with the aspects of God’s being (as conceived by Christians) that I have outlined. It can shed light on how God can be simultaneously transcendent and immanent, whilst illuminating the view that there exists a (personal) principle of order and rationality that permeates the phenomenal world. But what do I…er…mean by “meaning”? Simply this: meaning could be described as the “aboutness” of something, be it a sentence, a picture, or a facial expression. For something like a sentence, meaning is the message “encoded” in the combination of words the author or speaker has chosen to use. It is the information that the user (broadly defined) intends to convey in his or her message. My writing this blog post is designed to communicate certain propositions, thoughts, etc., which are reflected in the words I have chosen to deploy.

The above will suffice as a good, working definition of meaning. Let’s see, firstly, how it can help us understand God’s dual nature. Take the following sentence: “The boy threw the ball to the girl”. If you’re a competent user of English, you’re likely to recognize the scenario the sentence is about — that is, the event to which it points. It will inevitably conjure a particular image, consisting of a male child using a casting action to convey a spherical object (often of recreational value) to a female child. The marks that compose the sentence will be readily understood as constituting an intelligible message. Indeed, the message is immanent within the sentence, in that the latter is “invested” with the former. Meaning is also immanent within individual words. By means of physical markings, “boy” means, points to, or represents a male child (usually under 18). Going back to the level of syntax and sentence structure, it would seem that not only does a message somehow “infuse” the physical marks one might use to communicate it; as theologian Kevin Vanhoozer, author of the stimulating book, Is There A Meaning in This Text?, has argued, meaning “cannot grasped apart from them [i.e., those marks]”. As he goes on to say, the intangibility of meaning is known through the tangibility of written characters (or, alternatively, audible sounds).

And yet, meaning is not confined to a particular collection of markings. It’s not “shut in”, as it were, but transcends any one set of words. “It is more than vocabulary and syntax”, as Vanhoozer observes. It may pervade those markings, but is neither restricted nor reducible to them. Indeed, the meaning of a sentence is more than the sum of its constituent parts. We might think about it this way: whilst I can write “the boy threw the ball to the girl”, and successfully convey my intended meaning, this in no way precludes others from simultaneously doing the same thing. Conversely, their writing the same sentence does not evacuate meaning from my own scribblings. We can all successfully “point to” the objects that are represented by the words we are using, even if the sentences we write are identical. If meaning were to be tied to words in a non-transcendent way, this would be impossible. As it is, whilst meaning and words are intimately related — such that it could be called a relation of “immanence” — it does not exclude the former’s capacity to outstrip the limits of the latter. In fact, being able to convey the same information, using the same words as other language users, presupposes it.

Like God, then, meaning bears a dual nature: transcendent on the one hand, immanent on the other. As we have seen, these qualities are not contradictory; rather, they are complimentary, and necessarily so. If something as mundane as the meaning of words and sentences can be understood in this manner, then whatever other difficulties attach themselves to grasping the divine nature, the simultaneity of his transcendence and immanence should not be one of them.

So much for that conundrum. What about the idea that, for Christians, there exists a principle of order or rationality within creation, one that is identified with Christ, the very wisdom of God (cf. John 1:1-4)? Again, meaning provides a model for comprehension. As we have seen, the meaning of words invests them with intelligibility, whilst the principles of language supply shape and coherency to an otherwise random assemblage of markings. Of course, this is not the whole story. As Vanhoozer (among others) has noted, meaning is as much a verb (something that results from human action) as it is a noun (something that is “embedded” in words). The principle of unity is ultimately sourced in the intentions of the speaker/writer. Nevertheless, meaning acts as the proximate principle of unity, order and rationality for a chain of words a language user may string together. We may use our stock example once more: “The boy threw the ball to the girl”. Each word is imbued with its own meaning, such that the marks are no longer unintelligible etchings, but vehicles of representation that can be understood by other language users. Similarly, the sentence as a whole is ordered by those same principles of intelligibility: the words that compose it are rationally related, in that they are arranged in a given sequence to communicate a particular message. Meaning, though immaterial, is a substantial reality, and is mediated through the variety of linguistic combinations (“deeds and events”, as one literary theorist put it) to which it bequeaths order.

Hopefully, you can see where I am going with all this. Christ, the divine Word, permeates the created world, supplying it with a kind of order that resembles meaning’s relationship to words and sentences (incidentally, the example I am using also offers us very rough analogy as to how something immaterial [meaning] can exert some kind of influence over something material [written or spoken words]). Like meaning’s role in structuring the sounds and signs of which a  certain message is composed, the divine wisdom structures this world in a way that ensures its rational intelligibility. It is a world of reasoned cause-and-effect, of patterned beauty, which is (in principle, anyway) susceptible to rational, scientific explanation. Both meaning and divine wisdom act as adhering agents, cementing the various constituents of their respective worlds — one linguistic, the other phenomenal — in a comprehensible way.

Conclusion

My aim in this essay has been to show that certain Christian doctrines, whilst apparently guilty of incomprehensibility, can in fact be readily understood. If I am right, there is no need for special pleading here: the common example of meaning’s relationship to words — something of which we are all intuitively aware — suggests that superficial contradictions regarding God’s nature, or allegedly esoteric claims about cosmic principles of rationality, have analogues in the world of everyday material things.

*Yes, I am aware that some scholars dispute Pauline authorship of Ephesians. I myself think that Paul wrote the letter, but I acknowledge that not everybody sees it that way.

**Of course, this is not the same as saying they are untrue.

 

Resurrection and the Restoration of God’s People

This is the next instalment of a series of articles I have written on the multi-layered significance of the resurrection of Jesus (a series I began some years ago). Fair warning: this one is long. Very, very long! Hopefully, though, your persistence will be rewarded.

Introduction

John 20 contains a rather intriguing moment. Having discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty, Mary Magdalene remains outside the holy sepulchre, weeping (v.11). Jesus then appears to her – although she mistakes him for the gardener, and pleads with him to tell her where the Lord’s corpse might be. But once Mary realizes who it is, she cries out in recognition, and tries desperately to cling to him (v.16). Jesus then responds, but in so fleeting a manner that one could be forgiven for overlooking what he says. Nevertheless, it is of seminal, even revolutionary, import. I’m not referring to the fact that Jesus bade Mary to let go of him; it’s what he says next – commanding her to convey the good news of his coming ascension to the disciples – that is worthy of attention.

What is it about Jesus’ directive that is so noteworthy? Notice what he says: “Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (v.17). This is a remarkably significant moment – particularly given the way the Johannine Jesus uses familial language in the rest of the narrative. Throughout the Fourth Gospel, Jesus speaks exclusively of his close filial relationship with the Father. Consistently referring to God as “my Father” (5:17, 43; 6:32, 40; 8:19, 49, 54), Jesus deliberately distinguishes the relationship he enjoys with the Almighty from that of his contemporaries. Up until this point, he nowhere said that God was anyone else’s father, expect in an oblique, ironic sense (John 10:34-36). But now, he includes the disciples in the pattern of sonship he alone had enjoyed. They, too, have the privilege of relating to God in a relationship of filial love, and to Jesus in the context of a fraternal partnership.

But why the sudden change? Why does Jesus now broaden God’s spiritual paternity, having earlier marked out his own unique sonship? Why can the disciples count themselves as his brothers? According to John, it is Jesus’ resurrection that has led to this shift, this epochal expansion. Brief though this moment may be, John 20:17 offers us a window, a glimpse, into the deep theological and eschatological connections between resurrection and the re-establishment of the covenant community, or a divinely-authored family (to borrow John’s language). The crucial role the raising of Jesus played in the restoration of God’s people is, therefore, the focus of this article.

Getting a Sense of the Eschatological Terrain

The task of unpacking the above connections will occupy us soon. But first, it is worth sketching the backdrop against which the drama of Jesus’ ministry – culminating in the events of Easter – took place. The man from Nazareth appeared at a time of great tumult, marked by (among other things) the intensification of eschatological expectations. For many years, Jews had grappled with what appeared to be their ongoing exile, centuries after the Babylonian captivity. Despite their return to the land that had been given them, God’s people still experienced the hardships associated with that catastrophic expulsion. Theologian N.T. Wright has argued that whilst the Jews’ geographical exile had ceased, their theological exile persisted. Riven now by conflict and factionalism, they were not the holy people God had summoned them to be. He himself appeared to be absent, having apparently abandoned his treasured possession. Moreover, the land was not under Jewish control; by the time of Jesus’ advent, most of his co-religionists were chafing under the weight of Roman occupation. Where there existed some superficial autonomy, it was invested in local client rulers: vain men, who gloried in their venality and corruption.

These depressing realities provoked a diverse array of responses, running the gamut from collaborationist to outright – and violent – opposition. Despite the multiplicity of views and attitudes that prevailed, however, an enduring current of hope ran through a great swathe of first-century Judaism. This hope centred upon the promise of the eventual restoration of the Jewish nation, in a decisive unveiling of Yahweh’s reign. It was a longing that God would do for Israel what he had repeatedly vowed through the prophets – namely, that he would cleanse and redeem his people, bringing the long, dark night of exile to an end. OT texts such as Isaiah 40-66, Jeremiah 30-31, Ezekiel 36-37, and even Amos 9:11-15, buoyed the faith of many first-century Jews, fuelling their expectation that God would eventually manifest his saving sovereignty. The late NT scholar, C.H. Dodd, offered an apt summation when he wrote that “behind all the programmes [current within first-century Judaism] there remained the august idea of God himself coming to reign as sovereign, the living God, present and powerful”. The biblical touchstone for such anticipation was, of course, the exodus itself. It was thought to provide the paradigm which all later acts of divine liberation were to recapitulate.

As an associated idea, it was common (though not universal) for first-century Jews to conceive of liberation in terms of a militarized victory over the pagan enemies of God. Such a victory would, it was thought, be won through the agency of a specially anointed individual – the Messiah, in other words. Certain OT texts envisaged a royal, Davidic figure acting decisively as God’s man, defeating the nation’s oppressors on its behalf. Indeed, texts such as 2 Sam 7:14, Psalm 2, or Ezekiel 37, were cited to help sustain the hope that a Davidic descendant would reveal himself in messianic glory to rescue God’s people from those who’d tyrannized them. By the early decades of the first century, this belief was being refracted through the experiences of the Jewish nation, subject as it was to Roman dominion. Consequently, the violent overthrow of the nation’s pagan rulers was, in many quarters, anticipated – and, in the case of a few, actively sought.

This eschatological expectation was at a fever pitch when Jesus appeared, and forms the necessary background to his ministry. At this point, it’s worth concentrating on two, basic features of Jesus’ mission. These features tapped into a common yearning for Israel’s deliverance, even as Jesus radically re-configured such expectations. On the one hand, Jesus headed a kingdom of God movement. Such a declaration, at least in outline, was not unusual: he was preaching the coming of God’s sovereign rule, the converse of which was liberation for his people (Matt 4:17; Mark 1:14-15). This, as we have seen, was common coin in first-century Judaism, forming the eschatological bedrock of Jewish hopes for the future. One key difference, however, was that Jesus claimed the kingdom was in some sense already present in his own person and ministry; the end of exile was now apparent in and through his work. For the authors of the Gospels, Jesus not only pointed to the work of Israel’s king: he somehow embodied Yahweh’s royal glory. Through his healings and miracles, for instance, Jesus enacted the liberating power of God’s sovereign rule. The deliverance of a crippled woman on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17) was a microcosmic fulfilment of the hope of restoration for which so many Jews ached. Jesus acted as if God’s rule was actually becoming a reality in him; that the return of Israel’s king was at last occurring, presaging the inauguration of his saving reign.

On the other hand, Jesus led what might be called a renewal movement, inviting people to pledge allegiance to the kingdom programme he was announcing. Of course, the kingdom Jesus preached was quite unlike that of conventional expectation. Although he claimed a certain royal mantle, he did not envisage himself as the leader of a violent uprising or rebellion. Nor did he interpret his mission as one of anti-imperial revolution – though it was revolutionary nonetheless. Jesus was calling God’s people to renewal and moral-spiritual reformation, much as the prophets envisaged (e.g., Jer 31:33-34; Mal 4:5-6; cf. Luke 1:16-17). He was summoning his co-religionists to be a different kind of Israel, enjoining them to practice a fresh – and indeed, more faithful – way of living out the divine mandate. Not the Israel of violent, anti-pagan revolt, nor the Israel of arrogant religious nationalism, nor even the quiescent Israel of collaborationist design – but the true Israel of OT prophetic vision. It was the call to be a people marked by righteousness and peace, fulfilling its raison d’etre to act as the channel through which God’s redemptive purposes would embrace the entire world. All told, it was the call to be a people properly prepared for the Lord’s decisive coming (cf. Luke 1:16-17).

Jesus condemned as idolatrous prevailing approaches that other Jews took, even going so far as to warn of God’s imminent wrath if the nation did not abandon its present, sinful path (e.g., Luke 19:41-44). Both he and John the Baptist before him emphatically rejected the notion that Jews could look forward to vindication and redemption, simply by virtue of their ethnic heritage. Again, the words of C.H. Dodd are appropriate: according to Jesus, “hereditary membership of the chosen people is no passport to membership of the true people of God”. What his ministry pointed to was the need for a fresh work of divinely-wrought restoration; a new beginning for the people of God, necessitating his creative action. In tandem with his pronouncements of judgment upon God’s people, Jesus called them to repentance. He was not only promising the end of exile; as part of that redemptive package, he was also commanding the comprehensive reformation of the community itself. The Gospels show Jesus building a new people, a new family of God – one that did not revolve around the symbols of Temple, ethnicity, intensified Torah-observance, or land, but around himself. In language reminiscent of John 20, Jesus at one point declares that those who do God’s will are part of the new, re-defined family he is creating (e.g., Mark 3:31-35). Jesus’ mission entailed nothing less than the reconstitution of “Israel”, in fulfilment of ancient prophecy, with him at its heart.

Approaching the Resurrection: The Re-constitution of God’s People

Having provided some context, we’re now in a position to draw some more explicit links between the resurrection of Jesus and the establishment of a new people of God. Every feature of Jesus’ ministry we have touched on – his announcement of the kingdom’s arrival, his call for renewal, his creation of an alternative community, and his promise of the restoration of Israel – found its appropriate climax in the events of Easter. In particular, the resurrection, being the divine seal of vindication upon Jesus’ claims, guaranteed the ultimate success of his mission. Along with his crucifixion, the raising of Jesus was both the capstone to his ministry and the first step in the establishment of God’s renewed people. But behind the proximate culmination of his vocational aims lay the fulfilment of Israel’s enduring hope (found repeatedly in the prophets) for liberation and restoration.

Quite simply, Jesus’ resurrection meant restoration: the re-formation, by an act of divine sovereignty, of a covenant community dedicated to God’s purposes. Jesus’ efforts to call into being a new people of God required his resurrection, for the very reason that such a reality could only be secured by a fresh and epochal act of divine re-creation. It marked out God’s salvific reign through the victory of his anointed agent, whose triumph saw the emergence of this new community, delivered from the judgment that had been pronounced upon the nation. Dodd wrote that the raising of Jesus saw not only the irrevocable transformation of that first band of followers, but also “the rising of Israel from the dead.” The coming wrath, about which Jesus had preached, finally fell on his shoulders. His resurrection, however, signalled vindication – not only for himself, as the one who had ostensibly died an accursed death, but also for those who aligned themselves with his kingdom programme. Surprisingly, he was revealed to be Israel’s Messiah, who acted to usher in the divine kingdom.  It was the divine imprimatur upon a ministry which had been viewed as a betrayal of Israel’s ancestral traditions by many of Jesus’ contemporaries.  Equally surprising was the fact that with the resurrection, the long, dark night of exile had ceased. The “death” of God’s people had now been reversed, their sins expunged. This was the true deliverance awaiting them, running far deeper than any merely political liberation: the creation of a new Israel; a holy remnant, emerging out of the ruins of the old, freed from the enervating blight of corruption, and restored to its place as an object of divine affection.

Of course, equating death with exile, and restoration with resurrection, was no innovation, even if the application was unprecedented; though fleeting, there are hints in the OT that Israel’s return and reconstitution was seen as a kind of new birth, a fresh creation. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezek 37:1-14) is particularly germane. As many commentators have correctly noted, it is set amidst a series of prophetic oracles which promise the return of God’s people to their land, and his determination to care for – and tend to – his “flock”. Having suffered the consequences of Yahweh’s judicial wrath – wrath which manifested itself as eviction from the promised land – Israel, according to Ezekiel, could now look forward to a divinely-authored act of re-gathering. Ezekiel 37:1-14 fits snugly within this broader context, providing a vivid metaphor for what God was going to do. The story itself is well-known: Ezekiel is brought to a valley by God’s Spirit, and is commanded to prophesy life into scattered bones. Having witnessed the sheathing of these bones in muscle and sinew, the prophet listens as God explains the meaning of this “resurrection”: Israel, which had experienced the “semi-death” of exile, was going to experience restoration as her king led her back to the land of promise. In fact, verses 11-14 make the connection explicit, even going so far as to use the image of the dead being liberated from the grave to describe the process (v.12). What Ezekiel envisaged as the re-animation of lifeless human remains denoted nothing less than the re-constitution of the redeemed community, the re-affirmation of the covenant, the cleansing and ingathering of God’s scattered people, and the end of divine-human estrangement.

The connection between Ezekiel 37 and Jesus’ resurrection, then, ought to be clear. What was treated as metaphor by the exilic prophet became a concrete reality in the raising of one man. The restoration for which many Jews longed – pictured here as the divine inspiration of dry bones – had been achieved, astonishingly, in Jesus’ triumph over death. In seed form, his resurrection concretized the primary referent of Ezekiel’s prophetic vision — inaugurating the end of exile and the re-constitution of God’s holy community. To be sure, the relationship between Jews and the land of promise continued to be marked by ambiguity, even after the events of Easter. I’ll have more to say about that apparent “failure” below. But the shifting of the eons, and the implications for the rising of God’s people, should not be missed. In the mind of a first-century Jew, resurrection from the dead meant restoration of the covenant community’s fortunes – the re-establishment of the divine family, now cleansed of its sin. Returning to John 20:17, we might now have the chance to see an otherwise enigmatic statement in a new light. With the raising of Jesus, his first followers had passed into a fresh phase of salvation history, which saw them bequeathed the fundamentally new status of “sons”. They could now count the God whom Jesus addressed as “Father” in the same manner, for his triumph meant their entry into the new family (i.e., the new covenant community) that he had launched. They were indeed his children, having been drawn into an entirely new relationship on the basis of what Jesus did (cf. John 1:13). Where John uses familial language – referring as he often does to sonship and divine fatherhood – others employ the language of nation, body or community. Nevertheless, though these terms may capture different dimensions, their basic referent remains the same: namely, the “reanimated” people of God, whose restoration was not of the kind that could be won by military prowess, but one which only divine re-creation could secure.

Excursus: Jesus’ Resurrection and The Enigma of Israel’s “Unrequited” Hope

The NT is emphatic that with the raising of Jesus, God’s rule had been unveiled; his saving sovereignty had become manifest; a powerful victory had been won over his enemies; and, of course, the renewal and vindication of his people – commenced with Christ’s pre-resurrection ministry – had been achieved. But how could this be? The kingdom had not arrived in the way most Jews imagined: the Temple remained incomplete, and was eventually destroyed by the Romans in AD70; Israel was still under the thumb of pagan rulers; and liberation – at least physical-political liberation, of the kind that might entail the (violent) overthrow of Israel’s enemies – seemed a forlorn hope. Granting the vision of corporate restoration in Ezekiel 37 was fulfilled in the individual resurrection of what appeared to be a Galilean peasant, how could the raising of a single individual possibly signal the deliverance of a community – particularly when it was clear that the form this deliverance was expected to take had so obviously failed to materialize? How could the resurrection function as the means by which God rescued his people if the conditions of their enslavement apparently persisted?

At this point, we ought to examine further the ways in which the course of Jesus’ life (including his death and, especially, his resurrection) led to the re-configuration of central Jewish beliefs. We go firstly to the question of how the early Christians (including the four evangelists) distinguished between the present age and the age to come. Jews who believed in resurrection were largely convinced that the raising of the righteous would occur at the end of history – that is, at the end of the present, corrupt age – when God would come to rescue those who were his, fully unveil his kingdom, bring about the consummation, and usher in the new age of peace, justice, harmony and renewal. The idea of an individual being raised from the dead in history, however, was unheard of. But the startling sight of the empty tomb, along with the disciples’ encounters with the risen Jesus, signalled precisely that. It represented the beginning of the new epoch within the old. In contradistinction to prevailing eschatological convictions – i.e., that the age to come would dawn only with the passing of the current one – Jesus’ resurrection was a preview of the future, now bursting into the present; its end had already begun, at least in an anticipatory sense. Indeed, and to pre-empt the central topic of a later blog article, it “[was] the beginning of the ontological renewal of creation that will come to completion” when God fully realizes his redemptive aims (J.C. Beker). Within the promise of this wider renewal sat the redemption of the divine commonwealth.

If you read John’s Gospel, you’ll notice that the Fourth Evangelist assiduously foregrounds the idea of the proleptic nature of Jesus’ vocation, to the extent that some have suggested he operates with a thoroughly realized eschatology. Leaving aside the merits of that argument, it’s true the John portrays the ministry of Christ – and indeed, his resurrection – as the overlapping presence of the new age with, and upon, the old. When Martha professes conventional belief in the resurrection of the righteous at the end of time, Jesus declares himself to be the “resurrection and the life” now, in whose very person the in-breaking of God’s saving sovereignty is being actualised. And with that, of course, would come the advance restoration of his people (John 11:24-26). The deep-rooted longing for renewal, for cleansing, and for deliverance, were fulfilled in the prototypical raising of God’s anointed. This wasn’t simply a case of individual re-embodiment (though it certainly was that). Again, if Ezekiel 37 is to be believed, then resurrection denoted the re-invigoration of the covenant community. What happened to Jesus three days after his death marked the beginning, the decisive inauguration, of that redemptive process, one that was to be consummated later. Despite the ongoing reality of Israel’s subjection to pagan rulership, the resurrection secured present justification (and eventual glorification) for those who yielded to him (cf. Rom 4:25): not to the old symbols of Temple or ethnic identity – the function of which had been reduced to the talismanic – but to the One who forged a path through death and out the other side into new life, experiencing both judgment (via the cross) and deliverance (through his resurrection) on behalf of his people.

This brings me, secondly, to Jesus’ representative status. The notion that Jesus was in some sense the “first fruits” (cf. 1 Cor 15:23) of the vindication and restoration of God’s people is deeply related to his portrayal in the Gospels as the Messiah. Messianic fervour was certainly endemic within first-century Palestine, as I have noted. The evangelists, it seems, were quite innovative in their use of this concept, fusing messianic currents with the Isaianic picture of the suffering servant (e.g., Isa 52:12-53:12) in their portrayal of Jesus. He undertook the representative functions of God’s anointed, embodying those who were his. Establishing the divine kingdom in the epochal events of Easter, he acted on behalf of God’s people, as they longed for an end to their suffering. Of course, he also re-configured those hopes, and subverted conventional expectations as to what the liberation and renewal of the covenant community would look like. Still, the Gospel writers are united in their conviction that Jesus’ resurrection was an indissoluble part – nay, the validating climax – of his messianic vocation. The “split-nature” of Christian eschatology is tied to Jesus’ status as a divinely-anointed pioneer (cf. Heb 12:2). Through his death and resurrection, he broke out of the confines of the old age, ushered God’s new world into the present era, and acted as forerunner for those whose allegiance lay with him.

A helpful way of describing the representative dimensions of Jesus’ messianic status, particularly as it pertains to the present topic, is via the term “incorporative Messiahship”. There is some evidence that OT kingship could be seen in just this way (recalling that the Messiah was invariably viewed as a royal, Davidic figure), such that the destiny of the king’s subjects was somehow bound up with his own. In the NT, Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” to denote the fact that those who have yielded themselves to Jesus are somehow “incorporated” into his death and resurrection – thereby experiencing the same vindication that Jesus himself did when God raised him from the dead. Those who have placed their faith in Jesus “participate” in his achievement, such that they can experience the benefits of Easter. He summed up in himself Israel’s story, undergoing both the pain of death (read: exile), and the joy of resurrection (read: restoration). As biblical scholar Crispin Fletcher-Louis has noted, “[Jesus] incorporates the people in such a way that in him, their representative leader, the people find the fulfilment of their own destiny; they get to be the people they were created and called to be”. Or, to quote Wright again, “Jesus had somehow borne Israel’s destiny by himself, was somehow its representative”. Jesus functioned as a corporate figure, the messianic head of a new people who would share in his fate. His resurrection, then, entailed their own; as Michael Bird has written, what was true of Jesus would be true of them.

When we combine these two elements – a staged eschatology, on the one hand, and Jesus’ incorporative Messiahship, on the other – what are we left with? Jesus’ resurrection marked the proleptic invasion of the new age into the old one. Whilst it’s true that Israel’s material situation was left apparently unchanged, the framework of inaugurated eschatology allows us to see in the events of Easter the emergence of God’s final purposes – where every force arrayed against his people would eventually be defeated – in the present. Those events represented an epochal moment in salvation history, where God’s plan took a decisively new turn (appearances notwithstanding). The representative vindication of Jesus through his resurrection provided concrete evidence that God’s people had and would experience the same vindication, in both its present and future dimensions. Because Jesus was raised as a summative figure – encapsulating the fate of God’s people in his own person – members of the redeemed community could, by virtue of their corporate solidarity with him, also enjoy the present “down-payment” of complete, eschatological renewal.

Resurrection and the Composition of God’s Restored People

It remains now to say something about the complexion of God’s restored people, and the manner in which Jesus’ resurrection formed the basis for both its re-definition and (paradoxically, perhaps) its fulfilment.

The raising of Jesus had profound implications for the composition and identity of God’s restored people. In the first century (as we have seen), many Jews took it for granted that Abraham’s descendants – aside from apostates and the incorrigibly wicked – would enter the covenant community when God came to restore it, simply as a consequence of their ethnic and ancestral heritage. They clung to the aforementioned symbols of Temple, ethnicity, etc., as key markers of their distinct – indeed, unique – identity as Abrahamic children, chosen by God. But whilst Jesus’ resurrection meant the re-constitution of God’s people, it would be a mistake to think that this merely entailed a re-affirmation of national Israel.

John 2:12-22 provides a telling example. When confronted by the ruling elite of Jerusalem, who demand to know by what authority he claimed to cleanse the Temple, Jesus enigmatically says that if the great building is destroyed, he “will raise it again in three days” (v.19). The Fourth Evangelist, in an editorial aside, informs us that Jesus was actually referring to his own body – which means that the “raising” of which he spoke likely denoted his own resurrection (v.21). For many Jews in Jesus’ day, the Temple was, “…the sacred precinct…located at the cosmic centre of the universe, at the place where heaven and earth converge and thus from where God’s control over the universe is effected” (Carol Meyers). It was the central symbol in Israel’s national life, representing in stone and wood Yahweh’s decision to dwell specially with his people. The Temple was, in other words, the key identifying marker for the great swathe of first-century Jews – a sign, in other words, of Israel’s unique relationship with the creator God.

And yet here was Jesus prophesying the Temple’s destruction (see John 11:48; cf. Mark 11:12-21; Luke 19:41-44). In his riddling reply to the Jewish elite, he was claiming that the era of the Temple was coming to a (disastrous) end; all that it stood for, all that it symbolised, was now going to be fulfilled in his resurrection body. Its inevitable dissolution was also the prelude to the formation of a new, superior, “house of God”. For John, the raising of Jesus signalled the epochal “transfer” of the functions of the Temple to him. He would be the site of God’s special indwelling presence (cf. John 1:14); he would function as the unique meeting place between God and his people, and the convergence between heaven and earth (cf. John 1:51). No longer would Israel be defined by its relationship to the Jerusalem Temple, for God’s people would now be defined by its relationship to Jesus. This is of a piece with John’s Temple theology, which he has woven into segments of Jesus’ farewell discourse. His references to Father and Son making their home in the believer (14:23), and the mutually indwelling relationships that his followers will enjoy with the Godhead (17:23, 26) suggest that the redeemed community would operate (in a derivative manner) as the new dwelling site of God’s glory – glory that had been supremely revealed in the resurrected Jesus. This corresponds closely to what Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthian church. NT scholar, James Dunn, comments that it is “striking” the way Paul likens the church to God’s house, which is founded upon Jesus himself (1 Cor 3:16-17). No longer a structure composed of stone and wood, the true Temple is formed out of the mass of those men and women who are “in” Christ, having willingly submitted themselves to him.

What does all this mean? What does it entail for the identity of God’s people? As John 2:12-22 suggests, Jesus’ resurrection signified the fundamental transformation of Israel, and as a result, the re-definition of membership within the covenant community. We witness this in seed form in the Gospels (cf. Luke 15:1ff). They are replete with references to Jesus gathering a motely crew of people around himself, many of whom were viewed as “unclean” or “sinful” by the religious establishment. His advent introduced a radically new metric of covenant membership. Devotion to the symbols of the Jewish nation – chief among them the Temple, but also including land and Torah – no longer mattered. What mattered was one’s relationship to Jesus (cf. John 14:6).

This not only meant the creation of an alternative community, composed of the so-called dregs of first-century Jewish society; the same logic of Christo-centric membership demanded the eventual inclusion of those outside historic Israel, in fulfilment of ancient prophecy. With entry into the kingdom now grounded in one’s  fealty to Jesus, the way to divine sonship (or daughtership) was thus open to all, whether or not one’s lineage could be traced back to Israel’s patriarchal ancestors. This is at least part of the meaning of a verse like John 1:13. The Fourth Evangelist doesn’t spell out the full implications of this momentous shift, but as Acts amply demonstrates, the early church came to realize – aided by God’s revelatory activity – that with the resurrection of the Lord, the prophetic promise of liberation for the nations was now coming to pass (see also Matt 28:19). Indeed, as Paul notes in his letter to the Romans, the gospel he preached was for all, Jew and Gentile, who could win for themselves salvation by the same means: faith in the Messiah, Jesus (cf. Rom 3:29-30). Gentiles were to be welcomed into the divine community, but not as converted Jews; they were accorded membership within the reconstituted family of God because of that faith.

Of course, the in-grafting of Gentiles qua Gentiles into the people of God was bound to ignite controversy within first-century Israel, steeped as it was in nationalist fervour. But the NT is adamant. The Gospels contain hints that the inclusion of the Gentiles was all along the intended goal of Jesus’ ministry – in fulfilment of the prophetic vision (e.g., Luke 4:25-27). However, I think we can go further than this in drawing out the link between resurrection and the re-configuration of God’s people. Take Paul, for instance, who seems to touch upon these themes in Romans 4. For him, the death and resurrection of Jesus meant (among other things) the death of “fleshly” Israel and the raising of a newly-created community of justified individuals, centred upon the Messiah (Wright). Such individuals were no longer united through blood, location or ethnic identity, but again, through common faith in the resurrected Lord. Paul’s exposition in this chapter positions Abraham as the father of all who believe in the God who “gives life to the dead” (Rom 4:17). Of course, this characteristic act of divine power found its highest – nay, its paradigmatic – expression in the raising of Jesus, and it is something to which Paul refers at the end of that chapter as he draws a causal connection between the Messiah’s triumph and the justification of those who are his (v.25).

What Romans 4:25 also implies, when seen in its wider salvation-historical context, is that entry into God’s community no longer rests on identification with physical Israel (with all its key identity markers), but upon the vindicated Christ. On this view, those tokens of Jewish covenantalism – upon which many a first-century Jew relied (cf. Luke 3:8) – are irrelevant. A person’s justification and the restoration of Israel as a community of Jew-plus-Gentile are indelibly linked: the righteous standing of the believer is secured by faith in the resurrected Jesus, whose own acquittal forms the pattern for his followers. The saving significance of the raising of the Messiah, therefore, operates on both the individual and the corporate plane. What I have already said about the incorporative nature of Jesus’ messianic vocation is relevant here. Those who have been justified because of that faith participate in his representative triumph. As Paul seems to imply in Romans 4, it is not Israel according to the flesh (i.e., national Israel) that will be saved; since Jesus summed up the fate of God’s people in himself, what is of ultimate concern is trust in him and participation in his body. Dodd’s earlier reference to the “rising of Israel” find clear application in the creation of a new holy “nation”, membership of which is grounded entirely in one’s relationship to the Messiah. The “resurrection” of the covenant community thus entails the fulfilment of the prophetic vision – namely, the expansion of the circle of redemption to embrace people from every tribe and nation and culture and tongue. As Dunn notes in his study of Paul’s ecclesiology, the identity of the Christian assembly is no longer restricted by geography, or race (or social status or gender, for that matter), but by common allegiance to the Christ whom God raised from the dead.

Progressive Pieties, Islamist Terrorism and the Catholic Church: A Study in False Equivalence

I am often left feeling bemused when I read progressives’ attempts to make sense of Islamist terrorism. Previously, the trope that impoverishment and anomie caused people to perpetrate terroristic acts was in vogue. Whilst this explanation was never entirely bereft of merit – the lives of many young men who yielded themselves to such murderous rage have been marked by social or economic dislocation – it dramatically underplayed the formative role of ideas and ideology as legitimating forces of politico-religious violence. Moreover, the many examples of comfortable, seemingly well-connected and well-resourced individuals engaging in terrorism undercuts the thesis that poverty or marginalisation are the primary drivers: Osama Bin Laden was the son of a Saudi billionaire, whilst the present head of Al-Qaeda, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, is a trained surgeon from a prosperous Egyptian family. Such profiles extend to the so-called “foot soldiers” of radical Islam. The leader of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta, had been studying for his PhD in Germany at the time of his heinous act, whilst the infamous “Jihadi John” – grisly poster boy for Islamic State – was a young British man who’d attended Westminster University. Poor and wretched souls (economically speaking) they were not.

Thankfully, one doesn’t hear this alleged explanation bandied about with quite the same confidence. Even many on the Left have begun to recognize that there may be a causal connection between certain conceptions of Islam and terroristic violence after all. They have subsequently retired the older view that putatively religious acts of terrorism were nothing more than a proxy for merely social, political or economic grievances. Labor’s Anne Aly, for example, has rubbished the idea that economic deprivation, say, can do the heavy lifting in this regard – an opinion that is all the more significant, given that she herself is a Muslim.

But the passage of time has not necessarily seen a vast improvement in progressive approaches to the phenomenon of Islamist terrorism: having quietly abandoned one means of obfuscation, some on the Left have enthusiastically adopted another. One might call it the idea of religious equivalence, or the notion that all religions may, with equal likelihood, fuel acts of violent extremism (whether political or not). Even if some forms of, say, terrorism have their roots in Islamic doctrine, so the progressive might concede, it is equally true that other religions – Catholicism, for example – can justify such acts with comparable ease. Thus, one witnesses otherwise intelligent and well-travelled individuals claiming that terrorism perpetrated by the IRA and Protestant Loyalists during the Northern Irish “Troubles” was religious violence – on par, say, with the macabre theatrics of ISIS or Al-Qaeda, who self-consciously drape their acts in theological language. I won’t delve into why such a claim is wildly mistaken; others have ably accomplished that task. I merely point to it as yet another progressive attempt to deflect criticisms of (radical) Islam as an ideological incubator for violence and wanton bloodshed.

Child Molestation as a Form of Catholic Extremism?

Not so long ago, the former Premier of NSW (and self-identified Catholic), Kristina Keneally, penned a piece for The Guardian Australia, which included a species of the foregoing argument. Hers, however, contained a novel twist.

In her article, Keneally does not cite alleged examples of Catholic-inspired terrorism to argue that her own religious tradition is just as prone to corruption. Instead, she suggests that child molestation, rampant within the church for so many years, was actually a form of “Catholic extremism” – a distortion of teaching that was nevertheless discernibly Catholic, like the supposedly debauched interpretations of the Koran that mark out Islamic radicals. Keneally’s main point seems to be that certain (read: conservative) expressions of Catholicism were in some sense responsible for permitting the horrors of child sexual abuse, fostering these abhorrent acts. For her, the phrase “institutional sexual abuse” is too “bland”, too anodyne, to describe what she believes is indelibly linked to various elements of Catholic dogma. The supremacy of the Church’s authority, a belief that God was providentially protecting it from scandal, or the efficacy of prayer in securing moral transformation: these things, Keneally avers, have led inexorably to the destruction of scores of young lives. Indeed, she writes:

The end result of this flawed theology and ecclesiology is the nauseating, terrifying, grotesque, ritualized and repeated violent assaults and rapes of children by Catholic clergy and religious.”    

In Keneally’s eyes, child sexual abuse is a manifestation of “radical Catholic ideology”, just as the burning of Christians or the mass rape of women from minority religions is a manifestation of radical Islamist ideology.

Keneally’s is certainly a creative approach to a knotty problem. However, her analysis suffers from several critical defects, which prove fatal to her argument. Most obviously, it is quite wrong to equate child molestation within the Catholic Church and, say, Islamist terrorism as twin exemplars of some wider phenomenon we might call religious extremism. Radical Islamic terrorists explicitly justify their actions by releasing written tracts replete with references to the Koran and the example of Mohammed. For example, after ISIS-affiliated terrorists massacred scores of revelers in Paris entertainment districts in November 2015, the organization released a celebratory post about the carnage, quoting from the Koran to explain the reason for the attack. The quote is drawn from Sura 59:2: “Allah came upon them from where they had not expected, and He cast terror into their hearts so they destroyed their houses by their own hands and the hands of the believers”.

Other statements, whether disseminated by ISIS or some other extremist outfit, are laced with similar theological legitimations. The purveyors of such violence are convinced that what they are doing is a form of religious fidelity, warranted – even demanded – by their sacred texts. Mark Durie, an expert in Islamic theology, comments that “ISIS fighters are taught that non-Muslims, referred to as mushrikin (‘pagans’) or kuffar (‘infidels’), deserve death simply by virtue of their disbelief in Islam.  For ISIS, killing disbelievers is a moral act, in accordance with Sura 9:5 of the Qur’an, ‘fight and kill the mushrikin wherever you find them’, and Sura 9:29, ‘fight (i.e. to kill) the People of the Book’”. And in a widely-cited article on ISIS for The Atlantic, Graeme Wood has written about that group’s consistent efforts to couch their actions in the language of apocalyptic jihad. Radical Islamists, far from being reticent about their motives, seem proud to stand on a theological system that is drawn directly from Islam’s foundational traditions.

By contrast, there are no biblical texts, church traditions, theological commentaries, sermons, homilies or papal encyclicals justifying child sexual abuse or enjoining the faithful to engage in it. No priests charged with sexual offences have, to my knowledge, cited any sacred writings to rationalise their crimes. This is not merely a case of there being no such attempts to sacralize child abuse; the very structure of the Christian religion renders the possibility that someone would do so incoherent. The alleged parallel swiftly dissolves when one compares Mohammed and Jesus, both of whom function as moral paradigms for their respective followers. Unlike the life of Islam’s founder – which seems to offer ample warrant for war-like activity among the putative soldiers of Islam – Christ’s life offers no such grounds for the molestation of children. Where one set of macabre and notorious acts appears to be explicitly justified by adherence to a religious creed, the other represents a grievous betrayal of that religion’s overriding ethos and vision.

What of Keneally’s claim that certain elements of Catholic dogma have, in corrupted form, helped sustain the practice of child sexual abuse amongst the clergy over the years? To the extent that this is true, it still falls far short of anything remotely resembling a distinctively Catholic form of extremist violence. Take the alleged relationship between Catholic ecclesiology and the entrenchment of child molestation. Large, labyrinthine organizations may make the exposure and prosecution of such crimes difficult, but there is nothing uniquely Catholic about this. As the historian and commentator, Gerard Henderson, has helpfully pointed out, the current Royal Commission into these matters found that proportionally, child sexual abuse has been more common in the Uniting Church – the structure of which is far more diffuse – than in the Church of Rome. This is certainly revealing, for it suggests that a strongly hierarchical organization is not unusually susceptible to this kind of wickedness; if anything, the data points in the other direction. Here is what Henderson has written about the matter (bracketed annotations are mine):

“[There were] 2504 incidents or allegations [of child sexual abuse] between 1977, when the Uniting Church was formed, and 2017 [i.e., over a 40-year period]. This compares with 4445 claims with respect to the Catholic Church between 1950 and 2015 [over 65 years]. And the Catholic Church is five times larger than the Uniting Church.”

It’s also worth pointing out that other large institutions, both religious and secular, have sought to protect perpetrators in an effort to preserve the “greater good” (often window-dressing for naked self-interest and reputational advancement). The BBC is a good example – all the more so, as it is a non-religious, non-sectarian entity. In the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal in 2012, it was alleged that the BBC had protected other stars accused of sexual abuse, whilst serious institutional failings allowed perpetrators to ply their evil trade with impunity. Dame Janet Smith, who chaired an inquiry into the whole sordid saga, said that a “macho culture” prevailed at the broadcaster, which fostered rampant sexism and sexual harassment. She went on to indict the BBC for the institutionalised fear that many experienced, such that they felt unable to speak out. Finally, she excoriated those who were more concerned about individual and corporate reputations than they were about sexual predation. The point is that a tawdry and desperate attempt to cling to the laurels of an institution’s moral authority – at times leading to the craven abandonment of the victims of abuse – isn’t unique to religious bodies. Acquiescing to the supposed demands of the “greater good” cannot be given a peculiarly religious or theological gloss, for the very reason that this phenomenon – grubby though it certainly may be – is something common to every sector of humanity.

The contention that warped conceptions of prayer saw church institutions fail to act against suspected child molesters is also flawed. It may well be true in an individualised or historical sense, but what does this tell us about the purported link between Catholic doctrine and child sexual abuse? Keneally is simply unsuccessful in substantiating the broader claim that such practices are instances of a species of so-called Catholic “extremism” – i.e., that there exists a necessary link between the one and the other. I’m sure there were some Catholic faithful who, as a result of their belief in the power of prayer, did not respond adequately to accounts of abuse. But praying for the transformation of sinners – even those guilty of the most heinous of sins – is logically consistent with labouring for justice on behalf of victims, and bringing perpetrators to account. Prayer itself is a morally neutral mechanism. Assuming its efficacy, it may be used to try and secure either just or iniquitous aims. In that sense, it is like a car: a tool, which can be used ethically or unethically. More than that, an authentically Christian view of prayer must include the conviction that one’s supplications are directed towards a righteous God, who cares for the poor and watches over the vulnerable. The Book of Psalms brims with images of a deity who welcomes and listens to those who practice righteousness (Ps 15), who rescues the poor (Ps 35:10) and vindicates them (Ps 113:7). For the follower of Jesus, such prayers are often accompanied by acts that seek to secure relief for the oppressed – again, as a consequence of authentic faith. To be saturated in the Christian scriptures, then, is to pray with a fervent desire for justice to be accomplished – the very antithesis of the (unnamed) individuals Keneally cites as evidence for “radical” Catholicism.

The ongoing comparison with Islamic extremism illuminates the point. Whereas prayer that implicitly permits inaction in the face of abuse is a violation of Christian petitionary principles, terroristic violence in the name of Islam would seem to bear the imprimatur of sacred Koranic texts. Again, it may be helpful to refer to the justifications Islamists themselves have offered for their barbarism, as cited above. There is nothing morally neutral about those statements, for they seem clearly to enjoin the killing of non-Muslims as a direct manifestation of religious devotion. Similarly, there appears to be little room for saying that radical Islamists are guilty of distortion, since the texts in question are bracing in their clarity. To that extent, at least, there is a clear – one might even say necessary – causal connection between acts perpetrated by the likes of ISIS or Al-Qaeda, and the theological ideas they regard as their touchstone.

Towards the end of her piece, Keneally expresses obvious pessimism about the future. Her fear is that such crimes may still find conducive environments within the Catholic Church, as seminaries become “more orthodox and traditional”. Keneally implies that the underlying and sustaining cause – that nefarious wizard behind the curtain – of all that we have witnessed is none other than moral and religious conservatism. This seems to apply, with equal measure, to both supposedly literalistic interpretations of the Koran and to what Keneally sees as reactionary Catholicism. Her concern that the problem of child abuse within Catholic institutions may not abate ultimately rests on the assumption that conservatism and/or religious traditionalism provide settings that enable, harbour or conceal such offending. Unfortunately for Keneally, this jars with the historical evidence. The relatively widespread prevalence of child sexual abuse within the Uniting Church is once again instructive. The UC has long adopted a “low” form of ecclesiology, where the autonomy of the local church and its members is highly prized. Moreover, it has embraced female ministers, knows nothing of compulsory clerical celibacy, and has long championed the rights of same-sex attracted people (up to and including support for same-sex marriage). Indeed, the values and outlook of the UC tend to resemble modern progressive culture, such that in many areas, the boundary marking out the Church’s distinct identity has all but vanished. These convictions witness to a relatively liberal institution – one which nevertheless proved to be even more vulnerable to high rates of child sexual abuse than the Catholic Church.

What’s more, the recent experiences of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne suggest that moral and religious conservatism has been no more a barrier to addressing the scourge of sexual abuse than its liberal counterpart, and may have gone further in trying to arrest it. Under the archbishopric of Frank Little, clergy guilty or suspected of sexual abuse were often moved from parish to parish, shielded from scrutiny. By contrast, Little’s comparatively conservative successor – a man by the name of George Pell – established the so-called “Melbourne Response” in 1996 (soon after he became archbishop) with the co-operation of Victoria Police. The aim of the programme was to provide assistance to abuse survivors, which included the co-ordination of compensation packages. It was by no means perfect, and a fair amount of legitimate criticism can be levelled at it. But the “Melbourne Response” was one of the first initiatives of its kind to try and systematically address a problem that had beset the Church for many decades. Thus, the unfolding direction of historical events (at least in Melbourne) was precisely the reverse of what Keneally seems to assume.

Conclusion

Trying to have an honest conversation about these matters is sometimes difficult. I certainly understand the impulse to avoid offence, or to deflect criticism of a particular religious group because of fears concerning abuse and societal ostracism (even if they are exaggerated). But when those impulses lead a person to blunder into a thicket of false analogies, muddled analysis and historical ignorance, broader discussions regarding the causes of terrorism are hardly well-served. Kristina Keneally has tried to persuade us with what she sees as piercing honesty, allegedly exposing child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church for the degenerate religiosity it is. Degenerate? Most certainly. Religious? Well, no. If what I have said is true, then it is an affront to true Christian piety. Despite Keneally’s pretensions to insightful – even subversive – analysis, her article exemplifies all the calumnies I have just mentioned. Ultimately, it serves as a testament to the overriding influence that a rigid progressive orthodoxy can exercise upon intellectual honesty and clarity of thought.

(Christian) Religion and Secularism: A Response to Brian Morris

Note: this article first appeared in the online newsletter Engage.mail, published by the Evangelical Alliance’s ethics think-tank, Ethos.

I am usually fairly sanguine about the place of Christianity within modern society. Claims that an aggressive secularism is systematically attempting to extirpate religion in general, and Christian faith in particular, from the public square can often seem exaggerated. Every so often, however, I find my insouciance disturbed by some honest pundit or commentator, who with unusual clarity reveals the intentions of a certain strand of secular thought. Aside from providing (some) warrant for those anxious about anti-Christian hostility, such candour does have the advantage of giving one a fairly clear target at which to aim.

The opinions of Brian Morris, which appeared in both print and online media outlets last year (see, for example “It’s Time: Make Politicians Wear Religion on their Sleeve,” New Matilda, 17th August, 2015), constitute one such example. Morris, a former journalist, has turned his hand to advocating for his particular conception of secularism. As part of this project, he called on MPs to openly declare their religious commitments, in much the same way that elected officials reveal any pecuniary interests that may conflict with their parliamentary duties. Morris contextualised his view by saying that ‘politicized religion’ has surreptitiously retarded progress on a number of fronts, including efforts to legalise same-sex marriage and voluntary euthanasia. For him, parliamentary debate around SSM ‘subverts any notion of a secular Australia’.

Targeting Christianity especially, Morris argued that in a multicultural and multi-religious country such as Australia, it made sense for Christian MPs to be more transparent about their views. He suggested that one way of ensuring greater openness was to have politicians’ beliefs – and their influence on whatever views they may happen to hold – placed on public record. Others, like Fiona Patten (head of the Australian Sex Party) appear to have gone even further, suggesting for example that some kind of register of religious affiliation might be appropriate.

But let’s stick with Morris for a moment. One might be tempted to agree with him, at least to some extent. Say an MP is both a staunch member of the Catholic Church and has parliamentary oversight for various social welfare organisations (many of which have roots in, and are connected with, institutional Catholicism). It’s fair and reasonable to think that such an individual would be completely transparent in revealing his or her religious links. If that’s what is meant by politicians’ religious commitments being registered or placed on public record, then one will hear no argument from me.

The trouble is that Morris means more than this. Indeed, the suggestion that the airing of religiously-grounded views in parliament (say, in relation to the SSM debate) is itself evidence of the subversion of secularism indicates as much. So, too, does his interpretation of the Australian Constitution, which he argues was intended to ‘keep religion out of politics’. At base, it seems that Brian Morris wants to excise religion and opinions rooted in religious devotion from the public square. This is not merely advocacy for the institutional separation of church and state – something with which we can all agree – but for the rather radical idea, common among a more aggressive species of secularist, that religion’s presence in public-political life should be completely uprooted.

There are, however, several glaring problems with that kind of position. To begin, one must ask how it would even be possible, logistically-speaking, to achieve such an aim. How does Morris and others of his ilk propose to interrogate politicians on their religious commitments or to ensure those beliefs are publicly registered? Lying behind this is the very basic question of how one actually defines religion, which – notoriously – eludes all efforts at delimitation. What counts as a ‘religious’ commitment in the first place? Mere church membership? General theistic belief? A relatively doctrinal construction of religious convictions? What about the certainty that the cosmos is unified by a ‘higher’ meaning? In an age of spiritual pluralism, where all kinds of beliefs may fall under the umbrella of ‘religion’ (including those of politicians), arguing for some kind of public record comprising such beliefs is to engage in a project that defies precision by its very nature.

Similarly, how would Morris propose MPs corral their religious convictions in order to approach contentious issues in a manner that pleases him? He dismisses, for instance, Eric Abetz’s complaint that only the ‘intellectually bankrupt’ could expect a religious individual to ‘leave their religion at the doors of parliament’. But what’s to object to here? In my view, it reflects the common-sense view that religion – like any kind worldview (even atheistic ones) – is often embedded in the deepest strata of a person’s thinking and behaviour. Asking, say, a Christian to view policy issues without framing them through the lens of his or her worldview is akin to asking someone who wears glasses to remove them in order to ‘properly’ appreciate the lines and contours of a landscape painting.

This appears to be joined to Morris’ (unworkable) suggestion that religion in Australia should be ‘re-positioned’ as a wholly privatized phenomenon. However, short of barring religious individuals from entering public life, it would seem impossible to guarantee that religiously-inspired beliefs – which constitute a ‘framework of reality’ that enables many people to make sense of their world – seep into public discourse and parliamentary debate. Indeed, as social entities, religious individuals are themselves evidence that religion cannot be a purely private matter; their very presence suggests that the public and private dimensions of life can never be truly walled off from each other. Moreover, it seems that Morris has ‘solved’ the question of how one is to define religion only by conveniently opting for a narrow conception – driven, one thinks, by Enlightenment dualisms. Unfortunately, he has ignored the phenomenological diversity of religious expression, substituting for it a reductive characterisation that simply assumes (wrongly, I might say) its inherently privatized nature. Morris adopts a very ‘thin’ understanding of spirituality, which, apart from anything else, fails to reckon with both its ubiquity and its formative role in driving many individuals to work for the common good by way of public and political service.

In promoting his views, Morris evinces a fundamental misunderstanding of religion. But he also fails to understand the nature of Australian secularism, and does so in two main ways. First, Morris’ view that the Australian Constitution was meant to banish religion from political discourse is quite misleading. It was not intended to purify the political process of the apparently baleful effects of religious thought. Rather, the Constitution’s provisions regarding religion prohibit the passage of laws that establish an official creed, hamper religious freedom or disqualify anyone from public office on the basis of their religious (or non-religious) convictions. Here is the relevant statement, from S.116:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

The text says nothing about individual politicians forming and articulating their opinions on a range of issues according to a religiously-grounded worldview, and to say that it does suggests adherence to a peculiarly aggressive form of secular absolutism. If anything, the Constitution ensures a kind of ideational pluralism, where a host of ideas, creeds, norms and principles – both religious and non-religious – can compete with each other on an equal footing. The infrastructure of the state may be free from formal religious control, certainly; but this in no way means what Morris thinks it means – namely, the public invisibility of religious or spiritual worldviews, or the people who embody them.

Second, in advocating a shift of religion’s place in contemporary Australian life, Morris seems to ignore the very deep roots it has sunk into the country’s political, legal and social landscape. As such, he has de-historicized the country’s institutions, divesting them of their religious-ethical content. I regard it as uncontroversial that Australia’s political culture, its laws and many of its normative principles (whether codified or not) owe a great debt to what might broadly be called its Judeo-Christian heritage. Of course, we are the beneficiaries of a number of intellectual streams, including that constellation of ideas known as the Enlightenment. But it is more than a little churlish to suggest that religion – in this case, Christianity – has no place in the very institutions it helps underpin. No one is suggesting, say, that Christian individuals should be given carte blanche simply because of the spiritual tradition they carry. But again, it would seem intrinsically impossible, given the origins of many of our political and ethical values, to completely leach the public square of religious influence. Calling for politicians to reveal their religious commitments (as they might their financial interests) frames the debate in terms of a basic conflict between one’s spirituality and a fully-orbed devotion to democratic processes. But if what I have said about the foundations of Australia’s political culture is correct, then there is no necessary conflict; quite the opposite, in fact.

* * *

Those like Brian Morris seem to be espousing a revolutionary kind of secularism, which seeks to effect a tectonic change in the conduct of Western politics, and religion’s place in modern society. Unfortunately, Morris badly misconceives both religiosity and secularism, even as he casts himself as the latter’s defender. Calling for elected officials to publicly declare their so-called religious interests – part of a wider attempt to ‘re-position’ religion as a purely private matter – is logistically impractical and intolerably intrusive. It fails to reckon with the ubiquitous reality of a dimension of life that can never be wholly privatized, whilst hollowing out a favoured concept in the interests of zealously prosecuting a particular agenda. Of course, this is not an implicit call for spiritual revanchism; I don’t think we should seek a return to the pre-secular past. That said, Christians ought to be confident as they step out into the public sphere, knowing that the cultural framework is not only not inimical to their values, but owes a great deal to them. The efforts of radical secularists notwithstanding, one’s attempt to influence public discourse or enter the political arena as (say) an avowed Christian is a legitimate enterprise.