The Permitted Tactics

There’s all manner of things going on these days with the swelling support for gay marriage rights in the USA.  In the best situations, people on both sides of the issue are doing their best to stand their ground on what they believe to be the ethical sides of the issue.  But there seems to be, as well, a growing consensus that companies which take a particular stance on the issue should be subject to boycott, and in some cases actual governmental involvement, such as in the case of an Alderman blocking a Chic-Fil-A from receiving zoning rights.  These stances are taken on both sides, and we’ve heard about Evangelical Christians boycotting, or at least trying to boycott, companies for years based on their support of gay rights.  However, I think we’ve gone down the wrong road here on how we react to political stances, as well as how we have understood the proper use of the boycott.

For the purposes of discussing this topic, I’m going to put forward two hypothetical groups.  The first is the Inclusives, and the second is the Exclusives.  The Inclusives strive to bring in people and voices that have been excluded in the past.  They want equal rights under the state for all people.  The Exclusives think there are voices that do not need to be heard, and do not think that all rights apply to all people.  In our particular case, the Inclusives are striving for marriage rights for gay people, and the Exclusives are insisting that these rights belong only to the union of a man and a woman.

Now, what has happened, is that many avowed Inclusives have inadvertently become Exclusives through the conflict of these two ideologies.  The Inclusives want all voices to be heard, except the voices of the Exclusives.  They are fighting to get their point across, and to achieve goals, but in the midst of this struggle, they have advocated boycotts and what are essentially sanctions against the Exclusives.  Were these boycotts successful, these entities would cease to exist, and thus be effectively silenced by the exclusionary practices of the Inclusives.

Now, of course, the Exclusives are doing the same thing, and have been for years.  However, there is nothing particularly contradictory about the Exclusives doing this.  This is not a statement of support for the Exclusives, but only an observation that their position does not end up in contradiction if they maintain that there are voices which should no longer exist.  The Inclusives cannot maintain this position without some level of absurdity.  Thus, while we may not like it, it is fully consistent with the views of the Exclusives to attempt to silence their opponents through boycotts and the like, but not for the Inclusives to do so.

But then, there is the question of the rationality of the boycott itself.  I want to distinguish between two reasons for boycotting a company.  The first we will call a boycott for Teleological Reasons, and the second for Non-Teleological Reasons.  The Teleological Boycott is a boycott that is enacted because there is objection to the way the company does its business.  Thus the boycotts of the 1960’s regarding department stores and bus companies were Teleological Boycotts, as they aimed at the actual business practices of these companies.  They did business in an unfair and biased way.  The Non-Teleological Boycott objects to some element of a company that does not in fact have to do with how they do their business.  The repeated attempts by Evangelical and other Christians to boycott Disney for their perceived support of gay rights, is this kind of boycott.  There is no objection to how Disney does its business, making movies, running theme parks, but instead focuses on its stance on an issue.

Now, the boycott itself seems to be properly applied when it comes to Teleological Boycotts.  One may boycott Wal-Mart because of how they do their business, and not run into contradiction.  If one wishes that the company either ceased to do business in this manner voluntarily or not-voluntarily (through economic pressure) then this is fully consistent with the methods of the boycott.  However, if one boycotts Disney or Chick-Fil-A for their stances on gay rights, one seems to run into some confusion.

For it is ostensibly because of one’s ethics that one takes a stance on an issue.  The boycott over an ethical issue unrelated to the business of a company at best seems to be assuming that the ethical stances of companies, and the people who run them, are for sale.  At worst, it is bordering on a tyrannical tactic.  If their ethics are for sale, you simply give them an economic proposition that it will be in their best interest to change their stance.  As a tyrannical tactic, however it seeks to deny people money, and ultimately their living, home, clothing, and food, if they do not agree with one’s position.

Now in the first case, if the ethics really are for sale, then they are not really ethics.  They are merely economic maneuvering to take the position most likely to provide the most revenue.  However, if they are sincerely held beliefs, then no economic pressure will change them.

And here’s where the practical problem comes in.  For if we apply the Non-Teleological boycott to get our way, we assume that when a company agrees with our side of the debate their stance is a sincerely held ethical belief.  But when they are on the other side, we view it as an economic maneuver.  For if we thought that it was a sincerely held ethical belief, we would be monsters for denying people their livings for being in disagreement with us.  In fact, we would be extreme Exclusionists to the point of monstrosity.

Thus it seems that the tactics of the Inclusionists, if they wish to remain Inclusionists, must reject the desire to silence their opponents.  In fact, the tactics that we Inclusionists (because yes, I include myself as one who thinks that all people should have equal rights under the law, no matter what my theological views of the sacrament of marriage are) are free to use are much harder and much less tempting than those power plays that the Exclusionists use.  We are free to have everyone sit down at the table and to hear the voices of those who disagree with us, and to debate them.  And we are free to argue, and make our points known.  But we are not free, if we wish to remain Inclusionists, to exclude anyone, especially in a democracy.

Now, this short piece does not take into consideration questions of lobbying and those kind of elements of the situation.  But even taking those political elements into the discussion, we are still left with the economic or ethical motivations that either can or can’t be pressured by the attempt to silence the parties involved.  Ultimately, as in all struggles, to use the weapons of those you fight is to make you into your enemy.


First Theology

I recently promised on Facebook that I would write about what I call “First Theology.”  For some this may be a very disappointing post, as I am not going to discuss what I think to be the proper starting place of all systematic theologies.  For while some would put first the One God, and others would put the Incarnation, and still others the Creation, Revelation, or the Trinity, I am not going to say which of these venerable starting places is my own preferred way of entering into the mysteries of God.  Instead, I will focus on the First Theology that lives in the context of all of these realities, and while most identified with the Incarnation in our minds, has just as much right to be associated with each of these other areas as well.

For if Theology is the study of God, or the science of God, or the reason pertaining to God, then there is only one reality which can claim to be the First Theology:  The Divine Logos.  For it is from all eternity that the Logos is the full and perfect revelation of the Father.  In fact, from all eternity, the Father’s greatest act is the begetting of the full and perfect image of Himself.  In other words, the Son is a self study of the Father, a contemplation of the divine self in the form of a person who is just as much God as the Father is.  The First Theology is done by the Father in the person of the Son.  Perhaps “in” here is a poor word, but if I had used “as” there could be some confusion as if I were saying the Father acts “as” the Son.  Instead, what is meant is that the perfect imaging of, perfect study of, or perfect contemplation of the Father is not merely an attribute of the Son, but is, without limit or reservation, the person or being of the Son.

All that is made comes from the Son, as we are told in the prolog to St. John’s Gospel.  All that exists that is not God is put forward into being by the Son.  When God says “Let there be Light” in Genesis, it would be wrong to think that his was somehow done primarily by the Father.  Instead, the Son creates.  This is why it is improper to replace “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” with “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.”  In fact, all three of these names belong to the Son.  The role of the Spirit, which we will not go into here, is also in fact to sanctify, but that does not exclude the Son’s primary role of sanctification by the incarnation.

Lest I fall into the trap of tri-theism, it is important to point out the reality of perichoresis.  For wherever the Son is, so also are the Father and Spirit.  Whatever the Son does, so the Father and Spirit are acting.  However, it is the Son who makes all things.  This point is important, for it explains how and why we are made in the image of God.  For the Son’s act of creation is the act of the First Theology.  The Divine Logos creates to image the Father in things other than Himself.  It might be asked why the Son chose to image through creation, instead of further begetting.  Theories exist for why there are not more Sons, or more persons in the Godhead.  However, all I think we can say for sure is that it was better to create than to simply go one begetting or proceeding.

All that was made was made to reflect the glory of the Father; some things more than others.  The Son sets up creation to be a study of the Father, and makes conscious beings as its crown, made in the image and likeness of the Father.  He, like the Father He is the perfect image of, creates persons to image the Father[1].

It is this setting up of a study of the Father by means of creation, especially the creation of sentient procreative beings, that is fully consistent with the Son as the First Theology.  For this act images the Father in creation in such a way that we continue the imaging in all we do.  From joy to peace to the giving of life in our own images, we continue to be a study of the unending and inexhaustible life of the Father sent out into created being by the Son.

It is therefore this great imaging which is shattered by the introduction of sin into the world.  The imaging of the Father is broken, and the images and likenesses have been marred.  Now, what was at first set up to be a great joyful contemplation of the Father, has turned against the whole Trinity of God.  It is for this reason that the Son, the perfect Image of the Father, comes among us to repair the image and set it right again.  He enters into the brokenness and reverses it by perfect obedience, suffering, death, and ultimately resurrection.

Thus the First Theology, the first Theou Logos, is the very Logos Himself, and the whole history of Humanity and salvation is the history of the First Theology.  And all that human beings do, and all that we are, is rooted in this great theology.  It must give us pause, those of us who do theology, to consider what we dare to do.  For we suppose to do the work of the Son in the world, revealing the Father in Truth.  And thus, if we dare to do this work, we must pattern ourselves wholly on the Son whose whole life and being is a living image of the living and invisible Father portrayed for us in all that is made.


[1] Now some might object here that we are made specifically in the image and likeness of the Trinity, or that by “in the image” what is really meant is that we are “in Christ.”  I object to neither of these interpretations.  Instead, I argue that imaging the Trinity is in fact imaging the Father, for the trinity is the divine imaging of the Father.  As well, by being made “in Christ” who is the first and true and whole image of the Father, we are made in the living image of God, which is to be ultimately like God.  Thus the distinctions fail to be exclusionary.


Understanding Salvation Differently

In my last post I showed some of the problems with the popular conception of the atonement. This post I hope to offer an alternative understanding of the atonement.  Now this would be sheer madness if I was offering some theory of my own that I had come up with last week.  Instead, I would offer something far older than myself, a theory that has existed in the church since the beginning. For those familiar with different theories of the cross, the term Christus Victor might be the most fitting for this theory.  However, it is not exactly the theory identified by Gustav Aulen in his book of the same name.  It is something more.

The popular modern conception of the cross, which dates back to the Reformation, is familiar to almost everyone.  God is angry with us, wants to smash us to bits, and has every right to do so.  So Jesus comes in, takes the smashing for us, and the problem is solved.  The more ancient understanding of the cross is that it is the place where Jesus confronts human sin, suffering, and death, as well as the dark powers of the earth, and overcomes them.  Jesus takes on human suffering as the fulfillment of His incarnation, drawing us to Him in His suffering.

This meeting of God and human suffering, death, and guilt, is all based on the fact that Jesus, as God, is stronger than all of these things.  But He must become a human being to experience them in Himself.  He must be the one who suffers, experiences guilt, shame, sorrow, loss, and the perceived abandonment of God.  He must take on a body that can suffer and die so that He may directly encounter this suffering and death in Himself.  Then, once he has died, He overcomes the suffering and death in the resurrection. (1)

By doing all of this as a human being, Christ transforms our human nature and binds it closely to his divine nature.  In other words, humanity is now in the trinity by means of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection.  By dying he has confronted human death in himself, and overcome it by his divinity.  That divine overcoming is shared with us, and we are grafted into it, being allowed to now become, as St. Peter says, partakers of the Divine nature.  The divine nature of Jesus is shared with all of us, so that our sin, suffering, and death, may be overcome by his victory.

Of course, this is not merely a simple pardoning then of sins.  Our sins are forgiven by Christ, and his death works in a mysterious way to blot out sin.  But this is not the only thing.  We are not simply made legally righteous before God, but invited to share in God’s own person so that we are transformed into Christ in the world.  All of this seems very clear in John’s Gospel.

This image of redemption does not put us in the hands of an angry God.  Instead, it puts us as people who endangered our own existence by doing evil.  We undermined our own beings by disconnecting ourselves from God who is the very root and ground of our being.  By being in conflict with God, for in God being and goodness are one, we have lost our ground for goodness and existence.  Thus we do evil, and we die.  In other words, “the wages of sin is death.”

Christ comes to fix all of that by binding us tightly to Him in goodness and being.  The result is that we begin a journey of life that transcends what we understand of human life.  We are called to be humans bound up in the divine life of God.  None of this requires a God who is wrathful against humanity.  None of it requires that we think of ourselves as dung or worthy of God’s terrible wrath.  Instead, we are loved people, far more valuable to God than merely people He wants to see in some kind of legal relationship with Himself.  He says to us, as the New Testament makes clear, “you are one flesh with me” by making humanity in the Church His bride.

As well, all of the problems listed in the last article, do not pertain.  Instead, there is one consistent act of creation, redemption, and glorification.  God creates so that we might partake of God. When we fall, God acts to restore the relationship in reality, not merely in a legal fiction. And we then begin to partake of God’s life here and now, with a great hope that we will partake of it without limit after the resurrection.

(1)  All of this may be found in St. Athanasius, as well as much of it seen in St. Cyril as well as Maximus the Confessor and others.

The Angriest of Gods

I’m taking a break from my hobby of debating atheists to return to my main area of study, that of discussing modern theological topics from a systematic perspective in dialog with the ancient church.  Way simpler than showing skeptics that their epistemological position is self contradictory, right?  So let’s get into it.

The general view of the atonement (that process by which humans are brought back into right relationship with God) inherited from the Reformation and preached in many modern American Evangelical Churches, goes something like this:  God made people, people did bad things, and that made God angry.  Now God is an infinite God, and if God gets angry, God gets infinitely angry.  And God is a just God, and thus infinitely Just.  Now an infinitely Just and Angry God is not a God you want on your case.  So, humanity is in something of a pickle.  We might try to appease God, but we’ve made the terrible mistake, being finite beings, of angering an infinite being.  No matter what we do, we can’t get out of this mess.

In pops Jesus, who knows how to appease God, being one of the persons of the three-person God.  Jesus tells us that we’ve got to love each other, obey his commandments, and generally be willing to put up with a lot of crap because we follow him.  But then, of course, none of that matters because the big bad enemy of humanity, God, is out to get us and there’s no getting around Him by being nice and doing good, and loving our neighbor.  Instead, Jesus has got to take on the infinite wrath and justice of God so that we don’t have to.  Jesus is also God, and therefore infinitely able to suffer, which pleases the Father, the first person of the Trinity, because now he’s got a worthwhile target for his wrath who is both human (and therefore the just target of wrath) and God (and therefore able to infinitely suffer).  For God had a problem.  If God was infinitely angry and infinitely just, how would he manage to extract infinite punishment from finite creatures?  Well, the answer was going to be “let them suffer…forever.”

And despite there being literally dozens of problems with this model of God, Jesus, Sin, and Judgment, here is where the traditional model meets what appears to be an insurmountable problem.  For if human beings are to suffer forever, God’s wrath will never be satisfied.  For, if God’s wrath is infinite, it takes infinite justice to appease it.  Now, in the case of the “Jesus Shield” model (where Jesus stands in front of us and takes the brunt of God’s wrath) instead of us, Jesus, being infinite, can “take” the infinite wrath of God in a satisfactory way (hence the name “Satisfaction theory”).  God is satisfied in that His Wrath and Judgment have met an appropriate target.  But with the rest of humanity, if God is pouring out His infinite wrath, that wrath can never be satisfied.

There might be some nodding their heads and saying “yes, that’s why they will burn FOREVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!”  But this leaves God in a sticky position.  For if God’s wrath is not satisfied, does that not place God in a position of lack?  Does God not then depend on humanity in order for His wrath to be satisfied?  And, that’s one hell of a dependence, because it can never be fulfilled.  For no matter how long a finite human burns in hell, infinite satisfaction can never be achieved.  (This is one part of what we call the Kalam argument  “An actual infinity cannot be achieved by incremental addition.” (The other part of that argument isn’t relevant here).  We use this argument against an infinite regress of time.  Well, it also works on an infinite progress of suffering.  No matter how long a finite number of humans suffer, that suffering will never reach infinity.)

While the human side of this has been focused on to show why hell must be forever, the divine side of this has not been realized in the theory.  God has nothing like the right material to work out God’s wrath or justice on.  One would need an actual infinitude of human beings (which is ostensibly impossible) or an actual infinitude of time in which to punish a finite number of humans (also impossible, as shown above).

Thus we find that God must be a very frustrated God.  We are also left with some questions.

1.  If Jesus takes all the wrath for humanity, why is there still some left over for those burning in Hell?

2.  If God’s wrath is never to be appeased, why not let everyone but one guy go, to burn forever?  For burning billions for finite amount of time, no matter how big that finite amount of time can be (which must be the state of any temporal reality in hell, that of the incremental addition of instants), can no more satisfy God’s wrath than the burning of one person…or no people.  For a finite set taken from an infinitude does not lessen the infinitude.  But if we insist on a single person, well, there’s always that Jesus fellow who took all that suffering before.  Again, why does his suffering not suffice for everyone?  And if it does, how can there be any left over for all those people who didn’t accept him?

3.  If God is eternal and unchanging, is not this wrath which must be appeased somehow eternally part of God?  But if it is dependent on our sin, did we change God?  If not, and God is eternally wrathful, doesn’t that take away God’s ability to be called “All Good and loving?” since God is wrathful logically prior to the creation of humanity who deserves the wrath?

4.  Why isn’t Jesus wrathful with us?  If He is the perfect image of the Father, why does there seem to be a difference between the Son, who wants to make nice, and the Father who wants to burn us all alive?  Doesn’t this seem in contradiction to the scriptural statement that God does not desire the death of a sinner?

5.  If the answer to all of this is “Jesus DID do enough, we just need to accept it” in what way do those two things connect logically?  If what is being dealt with is a legal element, there is never any question that the victim must accept his pardon.  He cannot make the headsman chop his head off, or the guards strap him into the chair and pull the switch.  He may insist over and over that they don’t exist, or that they have no authority, or that their authority is a sham and a miscarriage of justice.  But there is no instance in which a legal decision made by a court is somehow dependent on the acquitted man agreeing that he is acquitted. The acceptance of Jesus’ life giving work does not fit in this model when we consider it.  It does in another model, one put forward by the ancient church, and for understandable reasons.  But not this one.

One sees the problem.  The traditional narrative of Substitution or Satisfaction atonement is fraught with dozens of problems.  This isn’t the largest, this is merely a funny little piece of a much larger picture of all sorts of things wrong with an interpretation of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that divorces itself from the first millennium of the Church’s understanding.

We should instead take some cues from the early church in understanding how the reconciliation between humanity and God works, and I’ll touch on that in my next post on the restoration of humanity.