While I appreciate and concur with much of what Lawrence Swaim presents in his Tikkun article, “The Death of Christianity,” I am disturbed by what he leaves out. He presents a one-sided caricature of Christian theology by focusing 100 percent on the dark side of Christianity and the ideologies or fundamentalist theologies that enforce that dark side. But he relinquishes too much to that wing of Christianity which I characterize as “fall/redemption” or “original sin based” derivative from St. Augustine, the fourth-century theologian who invented the concept of original sin and whom more Western Christians know better than they know Jesus and his teachings.
Swaim’s entire treatise leaves out the alternative Christian tradition—that of creation spirituality. Since I have spent my life recovering that tradition and have written thirty books from that tradition and launched a university based on it, I find Swaim’s lacuna to be considerable. The creation spiritual tradition does not begin with the cross or make blood redemption at all the center of Christian faith. Rather it begins with creation as an original blessing (not with sin and need for redemption), with awe and wonder (via positiva), letting go and darkness and suffering (via negativa), compassion (via creativa), and justice (via transformativa) and compassion. Thus it displaces everything that Swaim seems so upset about in Christianity. And, yes, it got us in trouble with the ecclesial status quo. Creation spirituality is the mirror opposite of fall/redemption (i.e. fundamentalist) Christianity. Swaim leaves so much out in his quick and one-sided race through Christian history.
Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater
If you just consider my recent book, Christian Mystics, where I bring together thirty-three mystic/prophets over the centuries, you can see a very different reading of Christian thought and practice than that of the sick Mel Gibson variety. Let me note just a few of those mystic-prophets by name: Jesus, Hildegard of Bingen, St. Francis, Meister Eckhart, Thomas Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, Nicolas of Cusa (about whom the late physicist David Bohm said he owed more to than to Einstein!), Teilhard de Chardin, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King Jr., Bede Griffith, Dorothee Soelle, Thomas Berry, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, and many more. These people’s lives and teachings were exemplary in many ways, and they still speak to us and still challenge us in deep ways. They operate out of the wisdom tradition and the prophetic tradition of Israel.
I do not disagree that—as Howard Thurman put it, and as Swaim would no doubt agree—the church has often “betrayed Jesus.” Or as Gandhi put it, that the biggest obstacle to Christianity in India “is Christians.” That Christians have failed to live out Jesus’s teachings, that Christianity has often put empire building and upholding before Gospel values—all that is both sad and true. But I think it would be a grave mistake to throw the baby and bathwater away together.
Consider for example the issue of the cross. I agree with Swaim that the emphasis has been often hard to take and sadistic and problematic politically and psychologically. But its deeper meaning, that of the reality and omnipresence of suffering in people’s lives and in life in general, can hardly be denied and will not go away. This is why the crucifixion carries archetypal power with it. The story that a “son of God” (and all who try to walk a pathway of wisdom are “sons of God,” if I understand Jewish theology correctly) gets murdered and tortured by the empire’s representatives is as true today (check out Wall Street vs. Main Street) as it was in Jesus’s day. The innocent suffer—not only at the hands of life itself, but also at the hands of human beings and their ideologically driven institutions. Is there meaning to that suffering? The Christian story suggests there is.
Buddhism too acknowledges the omnipresence of suffering, “all beings suffer,” and that is what the cross symbolism is saying also: all beings, even innocent beings, even good beings who are sons of God, suffer. But such suffering can be redemptive. It does not have the last word.
Christianity’s Deeper and Nobler Traditions
One can go through many of the other archetypal stories in Christianity and find both personal and social meanings to them all. That is why they have endured—in spite of distortions by the church and corruption in the church and even violence in the church’s name. The truths that Jesus taught and that he unleashed keep recurring. A few more follow:
Resurrection. The great late psychologist and cultural critic Otto Rank, an early disciple of Freud who later quit Freud and essentially launched what we know today as “humanist psychology,” wrote that Jesus and Paul offered the “most revolutionary idea” ever proposed in human thinking. And that is the idea of the resurrection, i.e. the democratization of immortality. Rank believed that the search for immortality drove human history (consider the pyramids of Egypt) and constitutes the very meaning of the word “soul”—the search around the fear of death. Rank believed that by putting that fear to rest Jesus allowed humanity to finally live fully and creatively because fear of death feeds all our other fears. You don’t have to be a Christian (Rank was Jewish) to see the strength and implications of his argument.
Take the nativity story. The idea that “God’s son,” a great being, was born to poor parents in a barn, with mostly four-legged ones in attendance (see Isiah 1), and that shepherds, the lowest on the social totem pole, received this “Good News” from angels promising “peace on earth to all people of good will”—what is there not to like about that story? It offers help to the destitute, hope to those in despair, promise to the downtrodden. It is a retelling of the promise of the Jewish prophets.
The teaching of Matthew 25—“you do it to one of the least of these and you do it to me”—represents a high point in human efforts at ethical behavior and aspiration. The Beatitudes are the same, and Paul’s hymn to charity as well. Mary’s “Magnificat” the same. I agree that Christian history is very often appalling. But I do not agree that we should ignore those in that history who fought to live out an authentic life in the spirit and teachings of Jesus. We should not ignore the healthy tradition of creation spirituality that they developed beginning with Jesus himself operating out of the wisdom and prophetic traditions of Israel. Nor should we ignore the magnitude of the vision and effort of Pope John XXIII and his Second Vatican Council to change the direction of the Roman Catholic Church (an effort that has been forsaken utterly by the two most recent popes). And all this has not even begun to tap into the many teachings of the prophets and mystics I have named early in this essay found in my book, Christian Mystics.
Let me cite just one of those teachers, Dorothee Soelle, whom I had the privilege to know. She critiques the “idolizing of Christ” and “christolotry” (what Howard Thurman calls Jesus as object instead of Jesus as subject) and she also says:
Every day I am afraid
that he died in vain
because he is buried in our churches
because we have betrayed his revolution
in our obedience to authority
and our fear of it....
I cite this up front in my recent book on the terribly dark last two papacies, The Pope’s War: How Ratzinger’s Crusade Imperiled the Church and What Can Be Saved.
Let Swaim criticize Christianity. God knows I do. But let him also educate himself about its deeper and more noble traditions and personages lest he give too much credence (as the media continually do) to the patriarchal, imperialist, and dark side.
Scholars today agree that the cross was not a symbol of Christianity until the fourth century (yes, the century of St. Augustine and of the church inheriting the Roman Empire). In A Spirituality Named Compassion, a book I wrote back in 1979, I too took on what I call “the fetish with the cross.” As part of this conversation, I’d like to share some brief excerpts from that book’s fourth chapter, “Creativity and Compassion: From a Fetish with the Cross to an Exploration of the Empty Tomb.” The next section of this article is adapted from those excerpts.
From a Fetish with the Cross to an Exploration of the Empty Tomb
Perhaps we would all know more fully what creativity is if we were encouraged more to participate in it. But the West has for the most part repressed creativity and very often oppressed those who came to announce it. One religious symbol in particular seems to have been a victim of this repression of creativity and another seems to have been wielded as a weapon in the service of repressing creativity.
I am speaking of the exaggerated role that the cross has played in Western Christianity at the expense of a potentially equally powerful symbol, that of the empty tomb. The West honors fourteen stations of the cross and considers literally thousands of crucifixes and paintings of the crucifixion to be integral to its collective artistic memory. Yet how many “stations of the empty tomb” does the West know? Can the reader name even three well-known paintings of the empty tomb? In contrast, Eastern Christianity, both Russian and Byzantine, considers the risen Christ to be one of its most revered ikons.
The cross, no matter how you draw it, is profoundly linear. How easily and how often it has been turned on its side to be a sword. Crusades, inquisitions, witch burnings—which invariably meant the burning of old women—Jew burnings and pogroms, burnings of heretics and gay people, of fellow Christians and of infidels —all in the name of the cross. It is almost as if Constantine, upon his and his empire’s conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, uttered a well-fulfilled prophecy when he declared: “In the name of this cross we shall conquer.” The cross has played the role of weapon time and time again in Christian history and empire building. Thus Thomas Merton observed that when Christianity became the religion of the Empire:
the supreme sacrifice was to die fighting under the Christian emperor. The supreme self-immolation was to fall in battle under the standard of the Cross … But by the time Christianity was ready to meet Asia and the New World, the Cross and the sword were so identified with one another that the sword itself was a cross. It was the only kind of cross some conquistadores understood.
The cross as sword served the ladder’s purpose. Thus many Catholics living today will recall the following marching song from Catholic Action Days not so long ago: An army of youth / flying the standards of truth, We’re fighting for Christ the Lord. Heads lifted high, / Catholic Action our cry, / And the cross our only sword.
It is clear that the violent symbols of Christianity are not the monopolistic possession of either Protestants or Catholics. All have transformations to undergo.
What is most important is to enter into the symbol that, when cross and ladder reigned supreme, was so profoundly repressed in Christian consciousness. I mean the empty tomb. The empty tomb is the primary womb from which Christ is reborn and from which he declared, “I shall make all things new.” The empty tomb is, after all, the last—and first—word of Christian belief.
The cross was an invention of the Roman Empire who hung Jesus naked upon it. The empty tomb, on the other hand, is the product of the divine imagination. How strange that Christians should have invested so much more energy into cross than into empty tomb. It is time Christians started to explore the riches of their neglected treasure, and to initiate such an exploration I offer some of the following observations. First, a tomb is basically rounded or circular in shape, and Jesus’s tomb was carved into a cave. “Resurrection” does not mean rising up, since if Jesus had risen up in the cave he would have bumped his head. It means exiting, going out, leaving death and its shrouds behind. It is an empty tomb into which persons entered and from which one left. Being empty and having been emptied, it is not a closed circle but an open circle. More than that, it is not a dosed womb or tomb as in a narcissistic return to womb-like security and fetishness with self. Instead, because it is open and because someone has actually exited from it, it is a tomb in motion, a circle in motion. Thus a spiral. As a spiral, it is clearly distinguished from a mere repetitive cyclical view of the universe—which Eastern philosophers sometimes espouse. The Jewish and Christian revelation is that human history, while spiral, has a direction. The direction is meant to be the increase of love-justice in the world. The spiral represents a true revolution (from the word “to revolve”), for it is a turning around, a turning from, a turning toward and a turning on. It is rebirth, Resurrection.
It is interesting that DNA, the basic ingredient of all life, is understood to be two ribbons in spiral motion. A double spiral becomes then the basic symbol of all organic living. How appropriate that all spiritual living should possess the identical symbol since the Creator of physical life is identical to the Creator of spiritual life.
To emphasize the need for the empty tomb as a primary Christian symbol is not to suggest that the cross has no role to play in the future. In fact, a tomb presumes a cross. But there can be no question that, because the cross has played so one-sided and dualistic a role for centuries, it must be let go of in order to re-emerge in its fuller meaning within the dialectic of tomb-cross. One important symbol that the cross was meant to bear is the following: the cross is the cutting through of the ladder. When Jesus spoke of being lifted up and drawing all persons to himself, might the following not be implied: that he was to be the last victim of the ladder-powers? That his crucifixion was meant to be the last erection of the imperial principalities? That his sacrificial death was to render the ladders of the world essentially useless and to expose for all their bloodthirsty reality? That life, not death, would reign? But that the new word for life would be empty tomb, primary womb, resurrection? In this way death is truly swallowed up in victory as the dying figure, Christ, was swallowed up in the tomb and Jonah in the whale, both to be regurgitated from the bowels of the earth and the great mammal, respectively.
(To read more Fall 2012 online exclusives associated with the "Christianity Without the Cross?" section, click here.)