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.

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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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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A Quick Look at Psalm 109

First, go ahead and take a few minutes to read through Psalm 109. I think you will get a lot more out of this if you have it fresh in your mind.

Psalm 109 is perhaps one of the most disturbing and violent psalms in the whole Psalter. At first glance, verses 6-19 appear to an extended request from David to see the absolute denigration, pain, and destruction of his enemy along with their family members. For those of us who value Jesus’s command to “bless those who curse you,” this is a difficult psalm to accept, and not to mention a difficult psalm to pray!

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Faith is Trusting Jesus and His Work

The Doubting Thomas, Albrecht Dürer, 1510

Is it ever okay for a Christian to have doubt? Can you question and struggle with your faith and still be a good Christian?

I think there are two common ways of approaching this question that are unhelpful.

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Can You Trust the Witness of the Gospels? Craig Keener and Christobiography

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio, 1601

This post is for those who are skeptical or curious about the historical reliability of the Gospels (as well as those who might be curious to learn a little more about me).

I’ve tried to keep it concise, readable, and interesting for anyone who had ever pondered such a question.

Personal Prelude

I’ve never been one to just take what people tell me at face value.

I don’t think it’s really that I’m a skeptic; it’s just that, to me, it seems like a lot of people haven’t really thought through the things they believe very well.

Personally, I can’t really believe people who don’t have a good reason for what they believe, and I’ve always disliked it when people give me the textbook answer rather than a conclusion that they’ve arrived at through careful study and thought.

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Reflections on Love: Four Principles from Herbert’s Love (III)

Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet, Ford Madox Brown, 1876

This post is part of a series. Click the link for Parts 1 & 2.

Last time I introduced you to Herbert’s poem “Love (III),” and invited you into it—to meet the loving Jesus Christ who Herbert would like to introduce you to.

Here I want to draw a few principles from it about God and God’s love. These four principles don’t exhaust the treasure to be found in the poem, but they do help distill its essence.

Hopefully, in doing so, you can carry these principles into your entire life—certainly your worship and prayer life, but not only there! God wants your entire life, from waking to sleeping, to be permeated by his love.  

So here we go:

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Reflections on Love: Being Loved by God, or Love (III) by George Herbert

Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet, Ford Madox Brown, 1876

This post is part of a series. To see Part 1, click here.

“Love (III)” is one of my favorite poems because it speaks to the heart of the matter: what does it look like to be loved by God? Composed by George Herbert in the 17th century, it is his most celebrated poem. It also concludes the main section of The Temple, the collection of Herbert’s English poems.

Here is the poem in full (it belongs to the public domain), with the spelling modernized:

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Reflections on Love: Why Does It Even Matter?

Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet, Ford Madox Brown, 1876

This blog post started as a reflection on a poem, but it started to get pretty long. I realized I didn’t want to test everyone’s attention span, so I decided to split it up into a series that will attempt to unfold what love means for those who follow Christ.

Christians talk a lot about love. They claim that God loves them.

One early writer says that God has given Christians a new life because God’s love for them was so strong. Elsewhere, he writes that God’s love is so powerful and large that nothing can overcome or overpower it. Nothing is bigger or stronger than it (Eph 2:4-5; Rom 8:38-39).

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