Hospitality in a Hostile World: Being Serious About the Madness of the Sermon on the Mount

Already since the terrorist attack on Friday analysts and commentators have been warning France – and, implicitly, the rest of the world currently waging war against ISIS in Syria, most notably the US – to be careful not to “play into the hands of ISIS” and let our anger and desire for vengeance lead us blindly into a disastrous war as happened following the 9/11 attacks. By Sunday, however, France had begun aerial assaults upon ISIS targets.

Meanwhile, on our side of the pond, fear of the Syrian Other has risen to manic levels. Several states have declared that they will accept no more refugees. A large part of the inspiration for such a move is the discovery of a Syrian passport near the body of one of the attackers Friday night. Some have suggested, however, that the precise purpose of planting this passport may have been hopes of stoking European fear of, and hatred for, Syrian immigrants. As Dierdre Fulton reports on Truthdig:

“One theory is that ISIS hopes to turn Europe against Syrian refugees,” Kingsley wrote. “This would reinforce the idea of unresolvable divisions between east and west, and Christians and Muslims, and so persuade Syrians that Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate is their best hope of protection. ‘You know what pissed off Islamist extremists the most about Europe?’ summarised Iyad El-Baghdadi, an activist and jihadi-watcher, on Twitter. ‘It was watching their very humane, moral response to the refugee crisis’.”

Justin Salhani concurs, writing: “ISIS has released statements saying it wants the West to turn on refugees, proving its assertions that Western nations are at war with Islam. The extremist group has also said on at least 12 occasions that Muslims should be seeking refuge in their self-declared Caliphate as opposed to ‘the lands of the infidel.'”

Watching the response of United States politicians (to say nothing of citizens) suggests that, if this in fact reflects the aims of ISIS, they have been nothing if not effective. As Adam Taylor observes, “one of the most persuasive arguments against equating refugees with terrorists is simple: It’s exactly what the Islamic State wants.”

With all of this in mind, I think we are faced with an opportunity here – an opportunity to not let the terrorists win by reinforcing a narrative of “us” versus “them”; to not continue the cycle of violence, hatred, and revenge (and implicitly thereby to affirm the legitimacy of violence, etc.), a cycle which will not end until someone has the courage to take the risky step of simply renouncing tit-for-tat violence and the logic of lex talionis (more on this in a minute); an opportunity to demonstrate the love, compassion, and hospitality so powerfully exemplified in the Judeo-Christian scriptures and tradition of which we are the inheritors (even those heretics, skeptics, and atheists among us); an opportunity to deny evil’s superior power over good and to instead overcome evil with good – in short, an opportunity to be loving and welcoming, which (I think) are the best weapons in our arsenal in the fight against fear, hatred, and violence.

That all sounds nice, it may be objected, and the Bible gives us a lovely ideal, but this is the real world and we have to be practical and we have to defend ourselves. However, I think (and here I will surely start to lose readers if I haven’t already) that we are in the unique position of affirming and participating in a tradition (again, whether we are church-going Christians or Sunday-is-for-sleeping atheists) that wants to radically disrupt and overturn the business-as-usual, eminently practical, feet-on-the-ground rationality of the kingdoms of the world.

Though myself a heathen, heretic, and theological ne’er-do-well, one of the reasons that I still love the Gospels is Jesus’ talk of a new kingdom, a kingdom that is both among us and still to come, in which everything is turned upside down, in which the last are first, forgiveness is unconditional, strangers and weirdos are always welcome, violence is not repaid for violence, and gifts are given without anything being expected in return – in short, pure madness, holy hell, and sacred anarchy (to borrow John Caputo’s words). Human relationships are no longer matters of economic exchange but rather of overflowing love and grace.

And nowhere does Jesus say, only welcome strangers if you are certain that it is safe to do so; only give to a beggar if you are sure she won’t use your money to buy drugs; only be nonviolent if your life isn’t actually in danger. Specifically in regard to nonviolence, D. Stephen Long sums this up nicely:

Nowhere does Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount suggest that it is only for individuals. There is no footnote or proviso where Jesus says, ‘You are to live this way except when it comes to the defence of your neighbours, then you must use the violence at your disposal to protect them.’ In fact, the Sermon on the Mount is not private instruction for individual consciences; it is the political platform for the new kingdom or city that Jesus proclaims, the city that is to be ‘set on a hill’ and illumine the world (Matt 5:14-16).[1]

What madness! Yes, indeed. But the kingdom that Jesus proclaims is not of this world. And that does not mean, I am convinced, that it is therefore a kingdom of some magical hinter-world. Rather, I think, it is a radically new kind of kingdom which is breaking into this world and disturbing the present kingdoms. Mark Van Steenwyk calls this kingdom that Jesus preaches an “unkingdom,” and Jesus its “unking.” For what kind of king establishes the kingdom described above? Would not such a king be, by all worldly lights, naught but an anti-king, the very opposite of a power-grabbing monarch?

I am convinced that two of the most powerful and radical ideas on which this Unkingdom turn are radical nonviolence and radical hospitality.

I mentioned lex talionis earlier. You will hear this phrase a lot if you spend any time at all in Christian anarchist and/or pacifist circles (like Jesus Radicals or Young Anabaptist Radicals). In short, lex talionis is the law found in the Hebrew Bible of an eye for an eye. When Jesus cites this law, however, he immediately overturns it: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say unto you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also[.]” For centuries (well before the birth of “Christian anarchism,” even) certain Christians have been calling attention to the significance and radical implications of this passage. It may be old hat to some, but I think it is worth reviewing.

In his excellent work Jesus and Nonviolence, Walter Wink argues (and he is by no means the first to do so) that the word that is translated as “resist” is best understood as implying “violent rebellion, armed revolt, sharp dissention.”[2] Kurt Willems agrees with Wink’s translation, writing that “antistēnai is the word repeatedly used in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible as ‘warfare’ and is also used in Ephesians 6:13 in the context of active military imagery.”[3] Such an interpretation furthermore confirms the words of Long cited above that Jesus was not teaching private morality but a distinctly social ethic. Indeed, scholars as different as John Howard Yoder and Bart Ehrman agree that Jesus was executed precisely because, in the words of Yoder, he was “a social critic and an agitator.”[4] Ehrman agrees, pointing out that “only two known people were specifically called ‘the son of God.’ The emperor was one of them, and Jesus was the other.”[5]

Jesus was boldly proclaiming the coming kingdom of God, of which he (Jesus) would be the king. It does not get much more subversive than that. “This was the message he delivered to his disciples,” writes Ehrman, “and in the end, it was the message that got him crucified.”[6] Once again, the kingdom that Jesus was preaching – the Unkingdom of which he is the unking – is not a magical other-worldly palace, but a very this-worldly in-breaking and overturning of the kingdoms of the world. And I think we have a role to play in realizing this impossible Unkingdom.

(Otherwise, if Jesus never meant for us to take his words literally, if we are supposed to just sit on our hands and wait for God to come back and fix all of our problems, then I don’t want anything to do with such radically life-denying defeatism. It’s a convenient way to avoid having to accept any responsibility, but it ultimately sounds to me like Gnostic escapism — which, I am convinced, comes down to nihilism in the end.)

Christian anarchists and pacifists argue that Jesus’ teachings imply a refusal to perpetuate the cycle of violence. Responding to violence with violence only results in more violence. As Jacques Ellul says, “Violence begets violence — nothing else.[7] Accordingly, commentators who argue that violent intervention in the Middle East is largely to blame for the rise of ISIS don’t sound too crazy. It’s blowback. Imagine several of your friends and family members, while attending a wedding, are killed by a US drone strike – a strike sent on the shaky suspicion that a militant or two might have been present and which is anyway considered a success because your father and brothers are all over the age of fifteen which is enough for them to classified as suspected militants. What could possibly fuel more anger and resentment toward the US? What better inspiration could there be to join a radical group committed to waging a brutal war with the western world?

Violence begets violence. And it will happen again. I suspect that ISIS knows that if they are able to evoke a violent military response from France that will only mean more recruits for them.

So, what of the bit about hospitality? I mentioned earlier the disturbingly hostile responses to immigrants that we have been hearing recently. Since we never know which Muslims might be secret members of ISIS, the reasoning seems to go, we had better keep them all out. And this fear is, to a certain extent, understandable. But ultimately such xenophobia, if left unchecked, will plant the seeds of fascism.

More to the point, I have been arguing that we are the inheritors of a tradition that teaches radical hospitality. (Here’s a nice list of references.) And that is no hospitality that only welcomes sameness and familiarity, comfort and safety. Rather, as Kierkegaard says,

Your neighbor is every man [sic], for on the basis of distinctions he is not your neighbor, nor on the basis of likeness to you as being different from other men. He is your neighbor on the basis of equality with you before God: but this equality absolutely every man has, and he has it absolutely.[8]

Or in the words of Caputo:

We welcome those who are welcome to begin with, not those who are unwelcome. But if hospitality is what we say it is – that is, welcoming the other – then ought it not be a matter of welcoming those who are unwelcome? Should it not extended beyond our neighbors to strangers? Beyond our friends to enemies? Beyond the invited to the uninvited?[9]

Such hospitality is by no means easy, but, then, when was it ever supposed to be? “[I]f you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” That’s the easy part. The hard part is greeting – and loving – one’s enemies (or, in this case, those who look like one’s enemies and therefore inspire the same fearful reaction). Is it risky? Of course! But that is “the madness of the kingdom.”[10] And anyway, “There is always a risk in everything worthwhile.”[11] Is it possible that among the Syrian refugees – men and women trying desperately to save their families from the chaos and death of civil war, as any of us would similarly do – there is a militant Jihadist? Yes, it is possible (although considering the fact that initial reports indicate that most of the Paris attackers were French- and Belgian-born nationals, fears that militants are hiding among refugees from Syria seem pretty exaggerated). Just like it’s possible that your all-American neighbour is a white supremacist who has plans to shoot up a black church.

Either way, as I’ve said, I am convinced that if we let this fear drive us, if we respond only with hostility and violence, we will just exacerbate the problem; not only will we be reinforcing the beliefs of violent militants, but we will be telling the rest of the Muslim community that we are in fact the hateful, hostile, violent society that we are feared to be. A good way to make someone your enemy is to tell them that they are your enemy and treat them accordingly. And, as noted above, it would be very much in the favor of ISIS for us to do so.

If we lose faith in the power of good to overcome evil – love to overcome hatred, compassion to overcome violence, welcome to overcome hostility – then we have lost it all. If we refuse to give up the worldly logic of lex talionis then we have given up on Jesus. He was maddeningly impractical, to be sure. But, then again, revolutionaries always are. Revolutionaries are the ones who call for the impossible — who demand that we make the impossible possible. That’s what I want. The possible is easy. The possible is lex talonis. I want to push against the limits of the possible and challenge the status quo, a desire that I take to be at the very heart of the Sermon on the Mount.


Appendix (of interest to those concerned with matters of biblical exegesis):

I can foresee the objection that Romans 13 gets us off the hook of having to take Jesus literally and assures us that Jesus’ teachings aren’t that crazy. Anyone who has ever made a habit of talking about Christian anarchism and/or pacifism has grown accustomed to responding to this objection on a pretty regular basis (as in, every time the words “Christian anarchism and pacifism” cross your lips). The passage has been addressed many, many times, and there are many, many interesting points that could be raised, and but so I will try to keep my comments here short.

(Though in a very real sense I have no dog in this race — in the end my views are unaffected by what Paul may or may not have said — I think it is important to discuss alternative interpretations of this passage so that a more coherent Christian position on nonviolence and the state can be sketched out. Why do I care about finding a “coherent Christian position”? Because, as I’ve suggested, I think there are riches in the teachings of Jesus which tend to be swept under the rug because it is thought (implicitly, though it is not explicitly said) that Paul’s teachings trump those of Jesus.)

For one thing, I think it’s a little odd that I am supposed to not take Jesus literally on the basis of seven verses written by Paul (and a few more written by Peter, of course). True, the latter half of Romans 12 is basically a verbatim recitation of the Sermon on the Mount, but Romans 13:1 signals a rather strange departure from this. After all, Jesus never said anything of the sort (not even, I maintain, in the (in)famous “render unto Caesar” passage). First and foremost, then, I think that Christians should privilege Christ (this is not to advocate some kind of anti-Paul Jesusism, per say, just what seems to me like a perfectly legitimate method of prioritization).

One interesting interpretation that I think is particularly worth pointing out is that of Kevin Daugherty, who argues that it is in fact an unfounded assumption that this passage is referring to governing authorities at all. The Greek, he says, does not necessitate such a reading. Instead, Daugherty suggests, the passage could perhaps be better understood to be referring to religious authorities who wield a symbolic, spiritual sword, “Unless of course, Ephesians 6:17 means that the Holy Spirit can literally cut me.”[12]

What is helpful about such an interpretation is that it quells cognitive dissonance over how Paul could quote Jesus’ Sermon and then so suddenly seem to contradict it. Indeed, Paul himself clearly did not believe that obeying the governing authorities was of overwhelming importance, and the rulers clearly did execute wrath upon him, in spite of his “good conduct.” Accordingly, if we want to give Paul the benefit of the doubt (which, admittedly, I don’t always want to do – especially when he talks about women) this reading would be the way to go.

But even assuming the traditional translation the passage does not have to be read as condoning all forms of state violence (i.e., military, police, capital punishment). John Howard Yoder points out, for example, that “The sword (machaira) is the symbol of judicial authority. It was not the instrument of capital punishment,” nor was it “the instrument of war,”[13] so the passage has nothing to do with war or Christians’ involvement therein. Furthermore, Yoder writes, “verses 3-4 did not include any services that the Christian is asked to render”[14]; rather, these verses describe the authority as carrying out a function “which the Christian was to leave to God”[15], meaning, in other words, that the role taken up by state authorities is one which can only rightly be claimed by God and therefore state authorities have no claim on the allegiance of Christians.

Once again, we have a reading that does not so blatantly contradict the teachings of Jesus and is therefore preferable. Indeed, this makes perfectly good sense considering that the early Christians were followers of a man who had gone around declaring himself king of this crazy new kingdom and subsequently got himself killed for doing so. Of course authority only comes from God – which is bad news rather than good news for the state and those who would seek to morally justify it.

This turned out to be quite a detour into Christian anarchist and pacifist debates, but I think it is all relevant to my original point. I am fully and painfully aware that there are aspects of the debates that I had to leave out, but – believe it or not – I was really trying to be concise.




[1] D. Stephen Long, “What About the Protection of Third-Party Innocents? On Letting Your Neighbors Die,” in York and Barringer, 21.

[2] Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 13.

[3] Kurt Willems, “Nonviolence 101 – Resistance is Futile… or the Meaning of ἀντιστῆναι (part 2),” available fromἀντιστῆναι-part-2/ (accessed 2 August 2014), para. 7.

[4] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (2nd Edition), (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 1.

[5] Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 225.

[6] Ibid., 128.

[7] Jacques Ellul, Violence: Reflections From A Christian Perspective, translated by Cecilia Gaul Kings, (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2011), 100.

[8] Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, translated by Howard and Edna Hong. (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009), 72.

[9] John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 76.

[10] Ibid., 77.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Kevin Daugherty, “Romans 13 and the State,” available from

[13] Yoder, 203.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 198.


Anatheism: A Third Way

“The biggest no to theism in our modern era,” writes Richard Kearney, “was not Nietzsche’s philosophical announcement of the death of “God” in 1882 but the actual disappearance of “God” from the world in the concentration camps of Europe in the 1940s.” (58) Following this disappearance, the question, according to John Caputo, is, “Who–or what–comes after the God of metaphysics?”

Richard Kearney presents ana-theism as a sort of third way between theism and atheism–a way of conceding the atheist critique of theism while maintaining the sense of the sacred, of transcendence and divinity in theism. He writes in the introduction: “Ana-theism: another word for another way of seeking and sounding the things we consider sacred but can never fully fathom or prove.”(3)

The term, anatheism, is taken from the Greek, ana, which could be translated as “after”, “again”, or “return”, and theos, which is, of course, God. Kearney thus uses anatheism as a way to say, “Returning to God after God.” In the wake of the death of God, it is an attempt, not to resurrect theism, but to embrace “a form of post-theism that allows us to revisit the sacred in the midst of the secular.” (57) Anatheism is a humble third way that

differs from dogmatic atheism in that it resists absolutist positions against the divine, just as it differs from the absolutist positions of dogmatic theism for the divine. It is a movement—not a state—that refuses all absolute talk about the absolute, negative or positive; for it acknowledges that the absolute can never be understood absolutely by any single person or religion. (16)


A central component of anatheism—perhaps, indeed, the central component—is hospitality. Kearney begins by examining moments of hospitality in the three great western monotheisms: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In each episode that is considered, when hospitality is extended to the stranger, the guest, it is revealed that it is in fact God who has been welcomed.

Abraham is confronted by three strangers and faces the choice between hostility and hospitality. He chooses hospitality, opens his home to the strangers, shares a meal—breaks bread, we might say—with them, and it is then revealed that they are in fact messengers of God. Had he chosen hostility—perhaps the more rational choice in a hostile world—he would have effectively closed the door to the divine who arrived in the form of a guest.

Similarly, Mary is confronted with the choice between hostility and hospitality when the angel Gabriel appears at her door. She too chooses hospitality, and in so doing receives a message from God.

Jesus also appears to have a sense of this mysterious-mystical relationship between God and the stranger, identifying himself, in Matthew 25:31-46, with the stranger who is in need of food, water, and clothing. Those who followed Jesus’ advice to “Give to everyone who begs from you” (Matt. 5:42), it is revealed, have in fact extended their hospitality to Jesus.

The Gospel of Luke goes further in illustrating this point when Christ, having resurrected, appears to his disciples as a stranger whom they do not recognize. It is only after inviting in this strange guest and sharing a meal—again, the breaking of bread—that the stranger is suddenly revealed as Christ himself. As Kearney writes, “God is revealed après coup, in the wake of the encounter, in the trace of his passing . . . When God is revealed as having been present all the time, God is already gone.” (22)

Finally, Kearney discerns a similar moment of hospitality to the stranger-as-God in Islam, when Muhammad is met with an unfamiliar voice in the middle of the night in the solitude of a cave. Muhammad must choose whether to open himself up to the strange voice or recoil in fear and hostility. In choosing the former, he, like Abraham and Mary before him, receives a message from God.

All of these examples illustrate the way in which, as Kearney writes, “Love of guest becomes love of God.” (29) Rather than occupying some far off heavenly realm, “The divine, as exile, is in each human other who asks to be received into our midst.” (20)


Anatheism, therefore, is a call to radical hospitality. Not uncritical hospitality, for “Not every stranger is divine” (45), but a hospitality that refuses to close the door to difference, to stop one’s ears and cover one’s eyes to the stranger simply in virtue of her being a stranger. To instead devote one’s discerning attention to the needs of the Other, who “is sacred in that she always embodies something else, something more, something other than what the self can grasp or contain.” (152) Our task is to translate the stranger without transforming her into what is familiar and comfortable—into another self. “But to open oneself to such radical attention one must,” Kearney writes, “abandon the old God of sovereignty and theodicy. That Master God must die so that the God of interconfessional hospitality can be born.” (52)

This Master God is the tribal God, the omnipotent deity who is decidedly one our side and not on the side of our enemies. “Anatheist hospitality,” however, “opposes such gnostic divides between friend and enemy, where God is always my ally and the Stranger my adversary.” (172) Rather, it is precisely through the face of the stranger that we discover God—a God who “is a promise, a call, a desire to love and be loved that cannot be at all unless we allow God to be God.” (52-53) This is the God of whom Bonhoeffer writes from his prison cell, who “is weak and powerless in the world and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” (67) Kearney similarly writes that “the only God worthy of belief is a vulnerable and powerless one who suffers with us and is incapable of being relieved from this suffering unless we act against injustice.” (61)


Anatheist spirituality, then, is not one of metaphysics and ontotheology but one of temporality and immanence: “[F]aith becomes a commitment not to some transcendental otherworld but to a deep temporality in which the divine dwells as the seed of possibility calling to be made ever more incarnate in the human and natural world.” (142) Again, it recognizes the atheist critique of theism and does not make attempts to cling to the Alpha-God of old, but rather to find a post-theist language which can, in conceding the death of God, nevertheless not ignore or categorically dismiss “this radical and recurring sense of something more—something ulterior, extra, and unexpected—that various religions call God.” (183)

It is a faith—if we dare use such a loaded term—that maintains “a deep mystical appreciation of something Other than our finite, human being: some Other we can welcome as a stranger if we can overcome our natural response of fear and trauma.” (180) In this sense, “God thus becomes a God after God, a God who no longer is but who may be again in the form of renewed life.” (80)


The reader may finally be wondering whether or not the anatheist will just come out and say whether or not she believes in God, and why or why not.

“[T]he anatheist,” according to Kearney, “at least when philosophizing, provisionally brackets out questions of ‘God’ and ‘religion.'” (75) In other words, it seems, the anatheist is, in addition to a hermeneutist, a bit of a phenomenologist, with this statement recalling Joseph Dabney Bettis’ following description of the phenomenologist as one who “brackets out the question of truth as ‘actually being the case’ to expose the question of truth as meaning.” (8) He continues:

If I should say, ‘I believe that the Bible is the Word of God’, the phenomenologist might say in reply, ‘Let us bracket out for the moment the question of whether or not your statement is true and ask the question, what do you mean by ‘believe’? It is not self-evident what you mean. Describe what you mean. (8)

In other words, the phenomenologist is not, at least in the first instance, as interested in the arguments for God’s existence that fill the pages of philosophers of religion’s books, but rather with the question of what names such as God even mean. After all, can we really discuss the existence of God before having agreed upon what we mean when we say God? W. Brede Kristensen recognizes this difficulty when he writes

When we consider the idea, ‘God’, even ignoring the fact that this is absent in Buddhism, we must conclude that there is no particular idea of deity which is everywhere applicable. And if we relinquish the given forms of particular ideas of deity in order to find that which is common behind them, we are then left with empty concepts. (44)

God, while perhaps having a fairly unified identity in the southwestern United States, where I grew up, is in fact a difficult figure to pin down. There are even different theological positions in Christianity—take the differences between Calvinism, Arminianism, and Open Theism, for example—which, while agreeing upon the basic shell of who/what God is, seem to ultimately present deities with some pretty radical differences, and the acceptance of one or the other will likely affect one’s entire practice of Christianity (i.e., how one prays, worships, reads and interprets the Bible, etc.).

Does anatheism therefore simply ignore the question of God’s existence? No. Rather, “Anatheism tries to introduce reasonable hermeneutic considerations to the theist-atheist debate.” (171) It looks for meaning in the narratives of religious texts and indeed the name of God itself beyond the questions of literal history and existence. “Mindful of the inherent art of religion,” Kearney writes,

we are more likely to resist the temptations of fetishism and idolatry—that is, avoid taking the divine literally, as something we could presume to contain or possess. The figural saves God from the literal. For faith is not just the art of the impossible but an art of endless hermeneutics. Spiritual art may thus teach us that the divine stranger can never be taken for granted, can never be reduced to a collective acquis, but needs to be interpreted again and again. (14)

Anatheism recognizes that “The Bible, like most spiritual texts, is an assembly of fables, histories, chronicles, polemics, letters, and moral teachings as well as some inevitable primitive prejudices and errors” (169), while at the same time recognizing that “to say that holy Scriptures are made up of stories is not to say that they are just made up . . . For stories . . . can often reveal more essential and profound truths than histories that chronicle a mere sequence of events.” (170)


Anatheism is, as has been said, a third way. A way of puncturing the false binaries and either/or reasoning of our western minds and suggesting that maybe—just maybe—there is more to the story. For this reason, Kearney emphasizes that anatheism should not be taken to be a static position, but rather a movement which, “Instead of never making up its mind . . . is always making up its mind.” (184) Therefore, he concludes, we might best think of anatheism as an adjective: “I make a distinction here . . . between anatheist atheism and antitheist atheism, on the one hand, and between anatheist theism and dogmatic theism, on the other.” (184) In the end, then, while Kearney makes no bones about his suspicion of theism, the anatheist may or may not believe in something that we could call “God,” and whether or not she does, she attempts to maintain an aversion to dogma and a healthy skepticism toward any word that claims to be the final Word.



Bettis, James Dabney, ed., Phenomenology of Religion. (New York, Harper & Row, 1969).

Kearney, Richard, Anatheism. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

Kristensen, W. Bede, From The Meaning of Religion, tr. John B. Carmen, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1960, in Phenomenology of Religion, James Dabney Bettis, ed., (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).

Mutual Aid and The Kingdom of God: Toward A Christian Anarchist Hermeneutic

I. The Principle of Mutual Aid

In Mutual Aid, Peter Kropotkin traces the development of mutual aid through human and animal evolutionary history, ultimately concluding: “That mutual aid is the real foundation of our ethical conceptions seems evident enough.”[1]  “Sociability,” Kropotkin is convinced, “is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.”[2] And these claims he supports with an impressive amount of evidence from studies of both animal and human society.  The idea that pre-civilizational human society was characterized by a Hobbesian war of all against all is absurd on its face, Kropotkin argues, and

It is evident that it would be quite contrary to all that we know of nature if men were an exception to so general a rule: if a creature so defenseless as man was at his beginnings should have found his protection and his way to progress, not in mutual support, like other animals, but in a reckless competition for personal advantages, with no regard to the interests of the species.[3]

And furthermore,

The very persistence of the clan organization shows how utterly false it is to represent primitive mankind as a disorderly agglomeration of individuals, who only obey their individual passions, and take advantage of their personal force and cunningness against all other representatives of the species.  Unbridled individualism is a modern growth, but it is not characteristic of primitive mankind.[4]

Human beings, according to this view, have not evolved in such a way (as is commonly assumed) that we are all, at bottom, selfish, and that we must be dominated and coerced to prevent us from destroying each other—why, if we are simply selfish by nature, we would ever decide that we shouldn’t dominate and coerce one another remains unclear—but instead are evolutionarily inclined towards mutual aid and egalitarianism.

But surely, it will be objected, this is merely the revisionist history of hippie socialists.  Kropotkin, however, contends that, “not only many aspirations of our modern radicals were already realized in the middle ages, but much of what is described now as Utopian was accepted then as a matter of fact.”[5] However, “The absorption of all social functions by the State necessarily favored the development of an unbridled, narrow-minded individualism”[6], rendering the once-assumed place of the individual as an integral member of the collective whole a vague memory.  Where members of a society would have previously considered caring for the poor, orphan, widow, etc. to be a duty inseparable from social life, these responsibilities were now undertaken (or, rather, ignored) by the state.  “The result is,” Kropotkin continues, “that the theory which maintains that men can, and must, seek their own happiness in a disregard of other people’s wants is now triumphant all round–in law, in science, in religion.  It is the religion of the day, and to doubt its efficacy is to be a dangerous Utopian.”[7]

II. The Kingdom of God

Historically, Kropotkin points out, religion has often served as a challenge to these assumptions of self-interested individualism when they have arisen:

Even the new religions which were born from time to time–always at epochs when the mutual-aid principle was falling into decay in the theocracies and despotic States of the East, or at the decline of the Roman Empire–even the new religions have only reaffirmed that same principle.  They found their first supporters among the humble, in the lowest, down-trodden layers of society, where the mutual-aid principle is the necessary foundation of every-day life; and the new forms of union which were introduced in the earliest Buddhist and Christian communities, in the Moravian brotherhoods and so on, took the character of a return to the best aspects of mutual aid in early tribal life.[8]

It is tempting (and perhaps rightly so) to find in this an understanding of Jesus’ words, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”[9] as referring precisely to this principle of mutual aid, for, as Kropotkin tediously chronicles in his book, and as he mentions in the above quotation, it is very often among the poor that we still find the mutual aid principle most fully and beautifully realized.

After all, as Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is among[10] you”[11].  That is, the kingdom of the God who is love is, is continuing to be, and is still yet to be, realized among us.  And the clearest hint of where to find this kingdom is given to us when we consider where Jesus spent the majority of his time: among the poor and lowly.  And what is often found among the downtrodden of society is the aforementioned principle of mutual aid, preserved in spite of the rhetoric of self-interest perpetuated by the state.[12]

Furthermore, Jesus constantly emphasizes hospitality and the opening of one’s home to the stranger.  And, taken in tandem with the above considerations, this casts Matthew 25:34-40 in a new light as well:

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me . . . Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Christ is found in the face of the stranger.  As Richard Kearney writes, “Love of the guest becomes love of God.”[13] And in this there is no distinction.  As Kierkegaard points out, the commandment to love one’s neighbor is the commandment to love without distinction:

Your neighbor is every man, for on the basis of distinctions he is not your neighbor, nor on the basis of likeness to you as being different from other men.  He is your neighbor on the basis of equality with you before God: but this equality absolutely every man has, and he has it absolutely.[14]

And, consequently, “by being a Christian he does not become free from distinctions, but by winning the victory over the temptation of distinctions he becomes a Christian.”[15] Indeed, this is how Slavoj Zizek suggests that we read Luke 14:26[16]–as teaching the rejection of social, economic, political, etc. distinctions within society[17].  Similarly, Greg Boyd argues for a reading of Luke 24:13-35 as an instance of Jesus appearing as the stranger, and only revealing himself to his disciples once they had opened their homes to the unfamiliar guest—which Matthew 25, as suggested above, equates with being hospitable toward Christ the stranger[18].  Therefore, once the disciples had opened their home to this unfamiliar guest, they had opened their home to Christ.  The two are one in the same, and Christ reveals as much at the end of the passage.

What is the kingdom of God, then?  It is a community predicated on mutual aid and equality; a community that cares for the poor, the widow, and the orphan; a community that shows hospitality toward the stranger; in a word: unconditional love.  And it goes without saying that unconditional love is incompatible with oppression, coercion, greed, exploitation, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.

The kingdom of God, therefore, truly is, as Mark Van Steenwyk puts it, an (un)kingdom[19].  It is the kingdom of love, we might say.  And a kingdom that is ruled by love—by a king who is love (see Infinite Rebinding II and A Brief Interpretation of the Theology of J.G. Fichte for further thoughts on what exactly this means)—is hardly a kingdom in the hierarchical, authoritarian sense in which we have come to understand the term.  It is—dare I say?—anarchy.


[1] Kropotkin, Peter.  Mutual Aid.  (Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2006), 246.

[2] Kropotkin, 5.

[3] Kropotkin, 62.

[4] Kropotkin, 71.

[5] Kropotkin, 160.

[6] Kropotkin, 187.

[7] Kropotkin, 188.

[8] Kropotkin, 247.

[9] Luke 6:20

[10] Or within.

[11] Luke 17:21

[12] This is not, of course, to callously suggest that those who are not poor are somehow incapable of practicing mutual aid—there is certainly ample evidence to the contrary—but merely that the ideas of selflessness, of needing one another, and giving to those in need, are all too often ruthlessly stifled by the capitalistic ideals of competition, individualism, self-gain, etc. (which truly amount to, it seems, a thinly veiled valorization of greed).

[13] Kearney, Richard.  Anatheism.  (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 29.

[14] Kierkegaard, Soren.  Works of Love.  Translated by Howard and Edna Hong.  (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009), 72.

[15] Kierkegaard, 81.

[16] “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (NRSV)

[17] Zizek, Slavoj.  “Love As A Political Category.”  Subversive Festival.  Zagreb, Croatia.  16 May 2013.  Keynote Address.

[18] Boyd, Greg.  “Virtuous Ambiguity.”  Woodland Hills Church.  St. Paul, MN.  11 May 2011.

[19] Mark Van Steenwyk, That Holy Anarchist, (Minneapolis: Missio Dei, 2012), 14.

Infinite Rebinding II: God and (as) Subjectivity

As was briefly stated in “Infinite Rebinding: Preliminary Thoughts on Religion”, Kierkegaard took Hegelian philosophy to task for its posing as a purely objective system which holds true for all specific existing individuals.  From Kierkegaard’s standpoint, it is quite obvious why this is not possible: so long as one is a subjective individual, it is impossible to transcend one’s own subjectivity in order to achieve perfect objectivity.  To do so would require that one no longer exists as a subjective individual, for even to say that a subjective individual could attain pure objectivity is nonsense.  However, “[i]n a logical system,” Kierkegaard writes concerning Hegel’s attempt at achieving this pure objectivity through logic, which is supposed to transcend the relativities of the subjective individual who makes use of it, “nothing may be incorporated that has a relation to existence, that is not indifferent to existence”[1].  Kierkegaard goes on to write that, “[t]he infinite advantage that the logical, by being the objective, possesses over all other thinking is in turn subjectively viewed . . .”[2].  And herein lies the problem: objective or not, as soon as a logical system is employed by a subjective individual, the objectivity has been destroyed.  One may think of an analogy wherein a tree exists in the world and its existence is not contingent on being perceived by a human person[3].  However, my sensory experience of the tree and your sensory experience of the tree are by definition not the same, but subjective.  We may agree in the details of our description, but at the end of the day, my experience of the tree is uniquely my own and can never be fully and purely shared with another.  It is similar with the problem of logic.  While we may recognize the same rules of logical reasoning, not only were these rules invented at some time by a subjective individual, but as soon as we appropriate them and rifle them in the favor of our own particular argument, they have been subjectivized by the subjective individual.

Furthermore, Kierkegaard writes that “[t]he system begins with the immediate and therefore without presuppositions and therefore absolutely, that is, the beginning of the system is the absolute beginning”[4].  Again, the same problem applies: “If the system is assumed to be after existence . . . the system does indeed come afterward and consequently does not begin immediately with the immediate with which existence began . . .”[5].  In other words, to postulate the necessity of an “absolute beginning”, one is claiming that the beginning is prior to existence, as, insofar as it is absolute, it must necessarily be the beginning of existence.  However, the assumption of this necessity arises from the logic created by an already existing thing (namely, Herr Professor), and therefore an absolute beginning cannot be attained.  To do so would require one to step outside of one’s own existence in order to begin from this absolute beginning, but one must exist in order to begin from the absolute beginning!  Therefore, it is absurd.

From these objections, Kierkegaard determines that a system of existence is in fact impossible and that instead, truth must be discovered subjectively.  After all, though one may try to begin from an “absolute beginning” and thereby attain an objective system of existence, “. . . existence possesses the remarkable quality that an existing person exists whether he wants to or not”[6] – that is to say, one can try all one wants to construct a system of philosophy which requires one to deny one’s own existence as a subjective individual, but in the end it will prove impossible[7].

As was alluded to in part one, the exact critique that Kierkegaard levels against Hegel could be leveled against Christian apologetics—simply substitute Christian apologists with Hegel.  When God is made the object of deductive argumentation, s/he is no longer a subject, but, as Jaspers was previously noted as saying, a thing in the world—more specifically, a thing that can be grasped, conceptualized, made to fit within our logical systems.  However, as Jaspers goes on to say, “God is not an object of knowledge, of compelling evidence”[8] and as soon as God is presented as such, s/he does not exist.  The God of the philosophers, the God that is an object, does not exist.  Such a God is not conceptually possible, for such a God would be a conceivable God, an oxy moron.

To what, then, do we refer when we name God?  According to Kierkegaard, “God is a subject, and therefore exists only for subjectivity in inwardness.”[9]  Such a view corroborates what has been said above, i.e., that the God that is an object does not—indeed, cannot—exist.  Instead, God is a subject and can only be known subjectively.  Alternatively, Richard Kearney speaks of a God who may be—a God who is “the possibility to be, which obviates between the extremes of being and non-being.”[10]  This God says to Moses, “I am who may be if you continue to keep my word and struggle for the coming of justice”[11].  Kearney calls this a hermeneutics of the possible.  Finally, John D. Caputo, taking his inspiration from 1 John, speaks of a God who “is a how, not a what”[12] in order to articulate a theology of the event.  Such a God is not an objectively existing being above and beyond our sphere of existence, but something so intimately tied to our actions that God becomes instead a way of being—i.e., she who loves unconditionally may be said to be “God-ing”.

What all three of these different ideas concerning God have in common is that they challenge the typical western Platonic assumptions that demand that God must be timeless, immutable, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, etc.—a list of characteristics, which, aside from being internally inconsistent, render God a wholly immobile, impersonal being who is impotent to interact with the world of subjects and subjectivity.  Instead, all three of the above thinkers challenge us to widen our concept of God, to expose God to the dangers of subjectivity, to allow God to not predetermine or dictate our lives, and to open ourselves to the inbreaking (un)kingdom of God and allow it to invade and manifest itself within our relationships, our actions, and our possibilities.  This is a God who is so real, so close, so intimately a part of our lived experience that we cannot say just what s/he is, for we cannot extract ourselves from the reality of, and look objectively at, God, nor would we be so crude as to make God the conclusion of a deductive argument.  God is much too real and, by extension, much too mysterious, for that.  Such a God may be weak and unstable in comparison to the Platonic God, but such a God is also the only God who can mean anything for our lives.


[1] Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (in part), Nineteenth Century Philosphy, eds., Forest Baird and Walter Kaufmann (Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, 1997), 274.

[2] Ibid.

[3] This is, of course, assuming that we are not Berkeleians.

[4] Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (in part), Nineteenth Century Philosphy, eds., Forest Baird and Walter Kaufmann (Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, 1997), 274.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. 279.

[7] One is tempted to use the term “logically impossible”, but it seems that Kierkegaard would disapprove.

[8] Karl Jaspers, “Way to Wisdom.” A Concise Dictionary of Existentialism, ed. Ralph B. Winn. (Philosophical Library: New York, 1960). 41.

[9] Soren Kierkegaard, “Concluding Unscientific Postscript.” Winn, 41.

[10] Richard Kearney, “God Who May Be: A Phenomenological Study.” Modern Theology 18.1 (2002).  75-87.

[11] Ibid.

[12] John D. Caputo, On Religion.  (New York: Routledge,  2001), 135.

In the Beginning, there was Rush Limbaugh. Thank God Kierkegaard Came Along.

If you love goodness, truth, and beauty, you should read this pretty lady’s new blog.


I was raised in the stereotypical conservative evangelical Christian home. My parents had a loving and healthy marriage my entire childhood. I grew up on sunday school, Focus on the Family, and my mom’s Republican talk radio shows. At three my father taught me to say “I’m a right-wing conservative and proud of it!”. As disturbing as many of these facts may be to some of you (including myself, and probably my parents who have a somewhat different outlook on the world now), I was also raised to think for myself. I know many people think that it isn’t possible to be raised a conservative evangelical, and be raised to think for oneself, but it is, and my parents did it pretty well. In early grade school I remember asking my dad how we knew we were right about God and Hindus were wrong since both religions believed with equal…

View original post 1,194 more words

A Brief Interpretation of the Theology of J.G. Fichte

“True atheism”, J. G. Fichte writes in Divine Government of the Universe, “unbelief and godlessness in the real sense, consists in calculation of consequences” (1).  In other words, Fichte seems to be saying that it is not so much one’s abstract beliefs, but instead how one lives (which is, of course, the truest way to learn what one believes – how do they live?), and if one lives as a utilitarian–calculating consequences–Fichte would call her an atheist.   Why exactly this is the case will be considered shortly. Fichte also rejects the notion of an infinite, personal God who exists separately from our world.  His argument may be summarized thusly: When God is understood as a being that has a personality, self-consciousness, will, etc. He/She/It is no longer something completely transcendent, for such characteristics “can be employed only if what they refer to is limited and finite” (2).  After all, it seems that a necessary condition of my having a personality is that there are characteristics which differentiate me from every other individual: there are certain traits and combination of traits which no one else has and vice versa.  Furthermore, my having a specific personality, with such-and-such a trait and without such-and-such other trait obviously necessitates that in virtue of this I am not (qualitatively) infinite.  So, Fichte would say, for me to say that God also has a personality just as I do, is to create God in my own image, which, according to Xenophanes, is precisely what we humans tend to do, and precisely why our “gods” tend to not be godly at all, but merely human creations. (3)

It is also worth commenting on the above qualification of Fichte’s understanding of the name “God” necessitating qualitative infinity.  Spinoza would agree; Leibniz would not.  For this reason, Fichte’s arguments must not be initially applied to all religious conceptions of God as such.  Perhaps this is the best way to understand the concept of God, but it must be allowed that it is an open question.  Some (such as Leibniz) would reject outright the notion of God’s qualitative infinity and instead affirm His/Her/Its quantitative infinity.  But such a discussion is beyond the scope of the present paper.

In the hope that the above sketch of what Fichte rejects about the notion of God has been deep enough to do so, we will move on to what it is that Fichte affirms concerning God.  Fichte writes, “This is the true faith: this moral order is the Divine which we accept.  It is constituted by acting rightly.  This is the only possible confession of faith: to do what duty prescribes” (4).  Very clearly we once again find Fichte affirming faith in God as a way of acting as opposed to an abstract belief concerning metaphysics.  He goes on to state that the “moral world order is identical with God” (5).  The moral world order is, according to Fichte, acting according to one’s conscience out of a pure, Kantian sense of duty, with no consideration for the consequences–consideration which is not moral in any meaningful sense, but simply utilitarian. Thus, the utilitarian denies the moral world order–God–and is therefore an atheist.

So, God is morality and morality is God.  Sound familiar?  According to the New Testament, “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (6).  Similarly, John D. Caputo seems to apply a Fichtean concept of God to this verse: “…love is a how, not a what” (7), which means, furthermore, that “God”, too, “is a how, not a what” (8).  For Caputo, this how is unconditional love, and for Fichte, it is acting out of a Kantian sense of moral duty.  So, in this sense, God is more accurately understood as a verb as opposed to a noun.  This is what Caputo refers to as a “theology of event.”

In a way, to the mind of the present writer, this understanding of God makes beautiful sense, and, in another way, is still quite elusive and mysterious.  But perhaps this mystery too is part of the beauty – after all, according to Caputo, “Religion is for lovers” (9).  The question of whether or not this particular notion of God is plausible is admittedly sticky, for, before it can be addressed, certain preliminary questions regarding the probability of the existence of a God, and the question of which religious texts (if any) are held to contain the true writings concerning the nature and actions of this God must be answered.  Does it jive, for example, with the aforementioned passage from 1 John?  In a way, yes, but such a passage must not be extracted from its context; for, according to the tradition in which the author was writing, God does exist as a personal being, and became as personal as possible when He/She/It appeared in the form of a man (i.e. Jesus of Nazareth).  Nevertheless, John is saying quite simply that God is love, which might suggest that he saw Jesus as pure love manifested in human form.  All of this seems to suggest that God is not reducible to a personal being, in the way that, say, I am – for I am and always will be only a noun; I cannot become a verb.  But, according to this interpretation, God can.

However, this also calls into question Fichte’s notion that God must be understood as a qualitatively infinite being.  If God is love, as John says, He/She/It cannot, by nature, also be hatred.  Indeed, to allow our metaphysical abstractions to devolve into something like “Pure Being”, thinking this will defend us from the danger of a less-than-infinite God, will actually, in leading to the purest abstraction of being as such, simultaneously result in nothing.  Pure being is presumably so irreducible, so beyond the pale of particularity, that it is at the same time nothing.  Quite often, it seems, folks who think themselves incredibly pious feel the need to affirm the qualitative infinity of God in order to avoid any sentence beginning with “God cannot…” despite the contradiction.  But the contradiction is not necessary, according to 1 John.  There are such things as intrinsic impossibilities, which do not necessitate that one deny God’s omnipotence or infinitude, if this is in fact what one is hoping to defend. As C.S. Lewis explains:

His [God’s] omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. If you choose to say ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it’, you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can’. It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk about God. (10)

And this applies equally to Fichte’s God: if God is morality, God is necessarily not immorality, rendering Him/Her/It less than qualitatively infinite. It seems that Spinozistic pantheism is the only option for one who wants to affirm the qualitative infinity of God, but Fichte is clearly not arguing for Spinozism here.

One final point: I think Fichte offers an interesting insight into the common usage of the name, God (albeit, given an almost ironic reading). There seems to be a tendency to tack God onto our moral statements in order to give them legitimacy. Think about it: “My opinion is (X)” carries considerably less weight than “God said (X)”. Consequently, when we have strong moral beliefs on a certain issue, we find a way to spin it as the word of God, rather than our own, fallible opinions. And in this way, we do seem to conflate the idea of God with our own conscience and almost end up (unintentionally) agreeing with Fichte. And in so doing, “God” becomes nothing more than what the ideal being who perfectly embodies our personal moral views would look like. Thus, the soldier sees a warrior God, the pacifist a God of nonviolent love, the traditional soul (so to speak) a God of conserving tradition and maintaining proper authority, and the progressive soul a God of liberation and freedom from oppression.

It is not my intention to offer the above thoughts in a cynical tone. I sincerely hope that “God” is not simply a result of a Nietzschean will to power, as it were–or, more specifically, ressentiment–driving the weak to find a “metaphysical higher ground”, so to speak, over the strong by saying that it is actually an absolute authority over and above all of us which is the source of my personal moral beliefs. Such a god would be a reactionary concept and nothing more. Perhaps that is the case, but I’d like to think it is not. But then again, perhaps I am simply a naive romantic. If it is not the case, however–if we can speak of God in a meaningful sense as removed from our own ideals–how do we do so? How can we look at the concept of God outside of our cultural context? I think it was Gadamer who said something to the effect of, we cannot escape our cultural context and all of the biases that come along with it; the best we can do is recognize our biases as such and do our best to move beyond them. I think the same applies here. I may never know for sure if my concept of God is authentic or received, but I think that simply recognizing that and striving for the authentic is the best place to begin.


1. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, On the Foundation of Our Belief in A Divine Government of the Universe. Translated by Paul Edwards, reprinted in Nineteenth Century Philosophy, eds. Forrest E. Baird and Walter Kaufmann. (Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, 1997), 21.

2. Ibid., 22.

3. Xenophanes writes, “But mortals think that gods are born, and have clothes and speech and shape like their own . . . But if cows and horses or lions had hands and drew with their hands and made the things men make, then horses would draw the forms of gods like horses, cows like cows, and each would make their bodies similar in shape to their own.” (Early Greek Philosophy, Trans. and Ed. Jonathan Barnes, (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 43.)

4. Fichte, 21.

5. Ibid., 21.

6. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, 1 John 4:16b

7. John D. Caputo, On Religion.  (New York: Routledge,  2001), 134.

8. Ibid., 135.

9. Ibid., 2.

10. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain. (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 18.

Infinte Rebinding: Preliminary Thoughts On Religion

Having explained the foundations of my political thinking, it seems worthwhile to pivot now to a discussion of religion.  I am not interested in apologetics, per se, or in making a case for why my religious views may be objectively shown to be the correct ones.  In the spirit of existentialism, I agree with the following words of Karl Jaspers: “The non-existence of God can be proved no more than his existence.  The proofs and their confutations show us only that a proved God would be no God but merely a thing in the world.”[i]  That is not to say that I discount evidentialism wholesale, but merely that I am skeptical of it as a totalizing enterprise capable of resulting in faith.  Just as Kierkegaard critiqued Hegel’s attempt at a systematic philosophy, I would critique apologists who attempt to offer a system which purports, on the grounds of objectively verifiable evidence, to prove the truth of Christianity.  As with Hegel, such a system would require that its proponents remove themselves from existence in order to systematize existence.  Once a purportedly objective system is proposed by a subjective individual (i.e., a person), however, the entire endeavor is undermined and destroyed.

What I hope to offer instead, is what might be referred to as a theopoetic understanding of the narrative of the relationship between the infinite (i.e., God) and man, and why I think this narrative, religion, deserves serious consideration, even if it is ultimately rejected.  This will require arguments of a kind, but they are arguments in favor of an interpretation rather than a system.  To those who are familiar with my views or have read other papers I have written on the subject, some of this will be old hat.  I am rehashing arguments I have made in the past, in an attempt to synthesize my basic views on the subject.

Humankind has shown itself to possess quite a propensity for religion – for the rebinding of itself to the infinite.  Why exactly this is the case is anyone’s guess.  Perhaps we are inclined toward the infinite because a piece of the infinite is within us – we are created in imagio dei, as it were.  Or perhaps this infinite – the “not finite” – is simply a negation of all we know to be real and therefore actually nothing at all.  It must at least be admitted that, either way, the conceptualizing of the infinite is a peculiar thing.

As William Blake says in There is no Natural Religion, “[m]an cannot naturally perceive but through his natural or bodily organs”, and, “[f]rom a perception of only 3 senses or 3 elements none could deduce a fourth or fifth.”[ii]   Whence, then, enters the infinite, which is presumably “a fourth or fifth”?  Or, to consider an analogy, how can we understand blue if there is no other color against which to contrast it?  There is no blue if there is no non-blue.  Similarly, it would seem, there is no concept of finite if there is no infinite, and vice versa.  Again, perhaps it is simply a negation and nothing more.  Or perhaps C.S. Lewis was right in saying that, “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.”[iii]  Such an argument would suggest that, not only do we have a concept of the not-finite, or not-this-world, but there is also some idea of what this world is not: namely, meaningful.  And yet, again, if physical existence as such is all that there is, and it is inherently meaningless, where could such a concept of meaning and its absence originate?

This way of thinking is consistent, to my mind, with the inter-subjective theory of consciousness.  Various formulations of the theory could be, there can be no I without a thou, or, there is no I without a not-I, or, a thou without a not-thou.  This perspective is also found in structuralism[iv], as when Saussure writes in Course in General Linguistics that, “[s]igns function, then, not through their intrinsic value but through their relative position” and “[t]heir most precise characteristic is in being what the others are not.”[v]  Again, if a thing is understood in terms of difference – what it is not – there must be positive examples of what it is not (e.g., in order for there to be blue, there must be positive examples of non-blue, and vice versa).  As Sartre would say, we must introduce “pools of nothingness” in order to understand our experience of particular things.  Obviously, this is a particular interpretation which could be challenged, but it is the interpretation to which I have tended to gravitate.

Either way, it seems that we have spent a considerable amount of our history groping in the dark to figure this out.  Some will reasonably ask: if this so-called infinite did exist, why has it left us in the dark?  But perhaps it is we who leave ourselves in the dark.  After all, we are an incredibly arrogant race.  Perhaps in the face of the infinite, which is wholly other, wholly mysterious, we realize our incapacity to understand completely, and so, rather than accepting the mystery, we shield our eyes and construct reality in such a way that we can understand and which allows us to claim Truth.  We find followers, (and, by extension, enemies), and create the infinite in our own image – in the image of the finite.  Thus does institutional religion arise, and thus theology, heresy, and philosophy[vi].  On the one hand, intelligent people will point to all of this religious nonsense and say that it is, well, nonsense, and therefore such mumbo-jumbo cannot be believed by any self-respecting intellectual.  Perhaps they are right.  But I wonder if, even though we humans have perverted this desire for rebinding-to-the-infinite (perversion of anything good being among our greatest of talents), it did not begin from a good and natural place.

And maybe, again, it is not that the infinite has hidden itself from us, but we from it.  Maybe, as the two angels of whom we are told in Acts 1[vii] advise the followers of Jesus, our mistake is that, in pursuing the infinite, we avert to an escapist mentality, in which we stare into the clouds awaiting the return of our Savior who will vindicate us in our proper theology and make fools of all of our enemies (especially the Baptists or the Catholics or the Seventh-Day Adventists, to say nothing of the atheists, communists, and Unitarians) at the expense of being-for-others in the present.  Perhaps the infinite is here among us, but so long as we fix our eyes on how, according to our particular eschatology, s/he will act at some unknown time in the future, we preclude his/her ability to act through us in the world.  Somewhere along the way we became convinced that our lives are constituted by an either/or choice between this world and the infinite and, we suppose, to pursue the infinite means to, at best, ignore this world, and at worst, to actively despise it.

But, it must be asked, if this world is so irreversibly wretched, what is the infinite’s game in abandoning us to it?  And why does religion still purport to offer some infinite-instituted morality for our daily lives?  It seems absurd that our being-with-others should matter at all if the only true purpose of life is gaining a proper understanding of the infinite so that we may be rewarded in the life to come.  Such an attitude seems to fly in the face of someone like Jesus coming and teaching an explicitly social ethic – a social ethic which has sadly been ignored in favor of the aforementioned escapism in much of Christianity.  The common obsession with the comforting thought of an afterlife has come at the expense of living the radical, terrifying, and perhaps even counter-intuitive way of Jesus in this life[viii].  But if the afterlife is all that following Jesus is really about, one must wonder why he spent so much time teaching his followers how to live in this life.

I am not here to offer a prescription or one-size-fits-all solution to the problems laid out above.  But I am bold enough to submit my suggestion.  First of all, I would propose humility.  Without a humble recognition that we, as finite beings, can never attain a perfect understanding of the infinite and a willingness to acknowledge that our particular religious methods might simply be wrong, if not all of the time, at least some of the time, we will never be able to fully actuate what I would offer as my second suggestion: being-with- and -for-others.  (Here I must speak from my own theological beliefs, but I do not mean it in a necessarily exclusive manner.)  If we take Jesus to be God-incarnate, but do not take his social-ethical teachings seriously, or we do not take the author of 1 John seriously (that God is love, and that God abides in the one who abides in love)[ix], I think our pursuit of the infinite would be little more than a waste of time.  We are social creatures and therefore must assume that, if we are made in imagio dei, our infinite creator specifically instituted the community as a necessary part of our living out this infinite image in which we are made.  And with humility and community in mind, perhaps we can follow Rilke’s advice in Letters to a Young Poet:

[H]ave patience toward all that is unsolved in your heart.  Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers.  They cannot be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything.  At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.[x]


[i] Karl Jaspers, “Way To Wisdom”, A Concise Dictionary of Existentialism, Ed. Ralph B. Winn (New York: Philosophical Library, 1960),  41.

[ii] William Blake, From There is No Natural Religion in The Norton Anthology of English Literature (New York: Norton, 2006), 80.

[iii] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HaperCollins, 2001), 39.

[iv] I don’t necessarily consider myself a structuralist any more than a post-structuralist, etc.  My preferred method in such matters is that of cherry picking.

[v] Ferdinand de Saussure, From Course in General Linguistics in Literary Theory: an Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 68-69.

[vi] As Walter Kaufmann says in The Faith of a Heretic, “One may view the history of philosophy as a history of heresy.”

[vii] Acts 1:10-11

[viii] A literal reading of the Sermon on the Mount shows a social ethic which runs contrary to the overwhelming majority of western thought (including much of western Christianity).

[ix] 1 John 4: 16

[x] Rainier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (New York: MJF Books, 2000), 35.