Being as Life and the Gerasene Demoniac

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I’ve long been interested in how drastically our underlying assumptions and perspectives regarding what the world is and how it works affect how we understand the world. This applies to how we read Scripture too. Recently, I read Stratford Caldecott’s The Radiance of Being: Dimensions of Cosmic Christianity. One who looks into the underlying metaphysics of the secular West, for which we’ll use the term metaphysical naturalism to denote, realizes that it reduces all reality to the mechanical interactions of physical particles. If this is the case, then what constitutes the real distinction between life and death, animate and inanimate? At the bottom they are both the same sort of thing. Thus, life tends to become the aporia – the exception to reality – or worse, something to be explained away.

Caldecott suggests that we turn from this Enlightenment view of reality, where “deadness” or “lack of life” is the basic state of things, and instead see “life” as the given, a transcendental quality of all being (by “being” I mean that which exists; by “transcendental” I mean a quality that all being shares inherently). Thus “life” or “proto-life” would be inherent in all things. Animate, ensouled beings are not the exception then; rather, they are the fulfilment of a primal principle contained in all being.

This seems to me the proper Christian perspective. Or at least close to it. If we look to the Gospel of John: “That which came into being in him was life” (John 1:3-4). While this sentence is terse and somewhat obscure in the Greek, it seems almost certain to me that it should be translated something like this. As the Psalmist says in “For with you is the fountain of life” (Psalm 36:9). God is life and life flows from him. All which comes from him, all created things, participate in his Life.

As I’ve been reflected on this, I came across another interesting reframing. This time of a scriptural passage – the story of the Gerasene demoniac in Mark.* In this story Jesus allows about several thousand demons to enter a herd of pigs, which then proceed to rush headlong into the sea and drown.

Many people understandably find this passage disturbing, wondering why Jesus allows, even commands, the suffering and death of all these poor animals. I think perhaps we can find a different perspective on it.

Of course, being the secular Westerners that we are, we read this passage far too atheistically. First, we have to remember that in the minds of Mark and his readers, this Jesus is a cosmic, heavenly being.** All things came into being through him (as even our earliest Christian writer, the Apostle Paul, acknowledges), and therefore all things intimately have their life through him and share their life with him. These swine are one of his creations, and they have their life through him.

What if, instead of imagining poor piggies being goaded to haplessly run off a cliff, we imagine that they, at the center of their being, “know” that this Jesus is the source of their being and that their life is in and from him. What if these swine have a primal impulse of life in them that runs counter to the death and anti-creational impulse of the demons. What if they understood themselves on a deep level as serving their creator and the source of their being through sacrificing themselves in order to trap these demons at the bottom of the abyss? In other words, what if we imagine the pigs as on some level courageous agents serving being against anti-being rather than unfortunate victims?

I think Mark’s narrative even runs in this direction. Scholars recognize that in Greek the terminology used to describe the pigs’ action could just as easily be military terminology: the demons ask to be “dispatched” into the swine. The herd is a “company” of soldiers. The pigs “rush” down the slope like soldiers rushing into battle. All of this connects to the fact that the demons call themselves “legion,” literally a Roman military unit.

Most scholars think the pigs serve as an ironic negative symbol, pointing towards idolatry and gentile disobedience to God and connecting to Roman imperialism. But what if the pigs were an ironic positive symbol? While on the surface, the pigs seem to symbolize idolatry, a Jewish person could have certainly recognized that all these pigs were actually strange and beautiful creations of their God (reading Job 39-41; Psalm 104; Psalm 50:10-21). Their life reflects his own life. The demons hope to enter the pigs, so that they may have contact with gentiles, perhaps ones who are seeking to use the pigs for pagan sacrifice. But the pigs courageously give themselves in order to honor the life principle inside them, graciously given to them by the one who stands before them. They sacrifice themselves to bind up death under the abyss and to cleanse the creation. These “unclean” pigs take it upon themselves to purify the world, transcending the framing the Law gave them and showing that even these unclean animals are good creations who seek to serve the Source of their life and being. I think that this reading is as just as likely textually plausible as the usual reading.

I think this all goes to show that the presuppositions that you bring to a text can have a huge effect on its significance. The basic question is, were the pigs sad instruments indiscriminately used with no concern for their (well-)being, or were they, in a sense, giving themselves in service to a higher good and following the course of their being? And I think it’s clear that our answer to this question ties into larger metaphysical presuppositions we have about reality and God.

*This basis of this idea was influenced by a comment in Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction by Cornelis van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink. I don’t have my copy around, so I can’t cite the exact page. Hopefully, I can update later.

** Many scholars are recognizing now that probably all followers of Jesus, even the earliest ones, believed Jesus to be in some way a divine being. There are a lot of difficult connections there, but gone are the days when it was just assumed that the earliest Christians saw Jesus as just a wise, earthly teacher.

On Forgiveness

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Just a heads up – this is a bit longer of a post than normal

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15)

These words of Jesus Christ are haunting ones. Here we learn that divine forgiveness is not unconditional. For me, as I read them, a sneaking anxiety compels me to look over my life – to inquire whether there are any grudges I am holding onto. Or perhaps I have forgotten to forgive someone, having moved on emotionally, and that unforgiveness sits deep under the sediment of my psyche like a long buried and forgotten city. Am I competent and diligent enough to dig through to these hidden places, secret to myself though always present to the Divine Eye before whom the entire work of my life stands bare? What even is forgiveness? Do I know how to forgive? How do I forgive those who have not asked for it? Who have no desire to be forgiven? Those who show no signs of remorse or repentance for what they’ve done to me?

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A Quick Note Propitiation and God the Father’s Relationship to the Suffering of Christ

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A while ago I wrote on the incoherence in the way many Christians understand the relationship of Father and Son in the crucifixion of the Christ. It was and is my opinion that we should retain the word propitiation to describe an important aspect of the event, but it must be thoroughly refined and defined through a creedal, and thus properly properly Trinitarian, lens.

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Reflections on Propitiation

The sacrifice of a pig in Ancient Greece, Epidromos, 5th BCE, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Depending on what Bible you read and which tradition you come from, you might or might not come across the word “propitiation.” And how often you come across it may vary. Some traditions use the word sometimes, and some traditions make the word central to their faith.

As a youth pastor, I have been thinking through how to explain the crucifixion of Christ to children in a way that is meaningful. I don’t want to just feed them platitudes, but present them with the underlying ideas in a coherent way. Usually I do this by trying to figure out a way to explain an idea without using any “Christianese” or technical terms that you have to be in the know to understand. If I can explain something in simple language, then I understand it well enough to teach it (usually).

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The Trinity: Three Gods or One God?

The Baptism of Christ

Christians believe in one God who is Trinity. One God in three Persons. Oneness in Threeness. Unity in Difference. Of course, this may all seem to be quite strange, contradictory, or just plain nonsensical. How can something be one thing and three things at the same time? Normally we would say that it is only possible if the three are considered parts of the one, or of a different category. But Christians want to say that the three “aspects” of God are not parts. Each is fully God yet cannot exist alone without the others. In this Christian mathematics it seems possible that 1 + 1 + 1 = 1.

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Your Life Is a Work of Art

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It was quite a few years ago now. A friend was describing to me an interview she had been listening to. It was about Pablo Picasso. As it turns out, he wasn’t a very good person by even a modest standard. His granddaughter wrote this about him: “He drove everyone who got near him to despair and engulfed them. No one in my family ever managed to escape from the stranglehold of this genius.”

And yet, he was a very talented artist. This raises the question – should an artist’s personal integrity have any bearing on his or her art and how we evaluate it?

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The Significance of the Incarnation

Every year on December 25th Christians around the world celebrate the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. But what is the significance of it? What does it mean when Christian say that God incarnated as a human being?

In normal, day-to-day English, you would probably almost never come across the word “incarnation.” If you did it would be more or less synonymous with the words “embodiment” or “version,” as in “My cousin Julie is so sweet she’s basically the incarnation of kindness,” or “This is the third incarnation of the novel I’m working on.”

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Psalm 137, Violence, and Justice

This time I decided to experiment with making a video. There’s a lot, lot more I’d like to say, as well as some concepts (like the Ancient Near Eastern concepts of justice and law) that I’d like to delve into more deeply, but I wanted to keep it short and to the point. Please let me know what you think of the video! (And here’s a shout out to my friend Andrew for recording and editing this for me!)

The Meaning of Life

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“Life” is a strange word if you start to pick it apart. 

On the one hand you use it to talk about a quality that belongs to things that are neither dead nor inorganic. This is the biological sense of the word. Things that have the incredible internal ability to grow, metabolize, reproduce themselves, and adapt to their environment have life and are alive. 

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