God exists or doesn’t, and everything takes shape accordingly. Our expectations should change given the reality of God or lack thereof – and our values.
Of course, most of the folks I know who think there’s probably no God also think quite Christianly. One of my best friends in early high school became an atheist after I introduced him to Marilyn Manson. The challenge Marilyn posed to our Bible-Belt Christianity was more than it could bear, and he jumped the boat, though I stayed nominal, for the most part. But damage done is damage done.
After Marilyn and company poked holes through his loosely enculturated religious mores, his politics changed as well. Fifteen-year-olds rarely nurse well-developed political convictions, but the inherited conservatism that he’d brandished uncritically up to that point evaporated and within a few years he was a progressive Democrat with a fairly robust social ethos. It took losing his grandma’s religion to come ’round to Christianity’s obstinate conviction that the measure of a society is its benevolence toward its poor. Our damnation will be that we churn out ‘destitutes,’ which Marx understood, and now so does my old friend.
Though I’m not to the left-of-center politically, those who are understand what most of us deny – that no culture that tramples the poor underfoot can be worth its salt; that the best of societies should be on guard for raining sulfur if their political machinations match what the prophet Ezekiel said about Sodom and Gomorrah:
“As I live,” declares the Lord God, “Sodom, your sister and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me. Therefore I removed them when I saw it.” (Ezek. 16:48-50)
So if, perhaps, their policy proposals are hasty or uncreative, the progressives among us nevertheless have a significant overlap with Christianity’s social vision. I don’t, of course, mean that political progressivism is somehow synonymous with atheism, because it isn’t. It can’t be, actually, and I think something closer to the opposite is the case.
There is, rather, something inherently atheistic about most political Conservatism. This is not derogatory, but it is a diagnosis. Much contemporary Conservative thought begins with “There is no thread that runs through humanity, and I owe no one anything.” Consequently, underlying much mainstream Conservatism is the notion that the status quo, the power structure, is basically kosher. If God exists, that’s not true.
The book of Leviticus, for example, ought to be plenty evidence that, no, things as they are cannot be accepted, embraced, or even escaped – only redeemed. On the other hand, mainstream Liberalism is undergirded by the notion that progress/justice is natural, or somehow self-evident. Moses suggests it’s the opposite – namely, that what’s common is unclean and we’re all guilty, communally, for everything. Justice is unnatural and we’re called to it, together.
It is easy to get lost in the weeds as one peruses the strange middle book of the Mosaic saga. The sacrificial system itself is convoluted and many-splendored, and embedded at the halfway point of the Pentateuch – which, more than any other section of scripture, weaves an almost Dostoevskian yarn. The natural assumption to make if you’re a disinterested reader with a somewhat-less-than-cursory knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern cultures is that the Hebrew sacrificial system was chiefly an exercise in satiating an irascible deity, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, though you’d be close. What emerges on a close reading of Leviticus is God’s slow struggle to ‘desecularize’ nomadic Israel’s communal life and, gradually, to deEgyptianize the Hebrew consciousness.
All of this sounds rather ethereal, and it is. We are not used to reading what appears to be a laundry list of sacrificial regulations as a slow-burning sacrament whereby Israel translates the holiness of God into day-to-day life and, in doing so, inculturates the humaneness of God. “The idea of sacrifice was not unique to the Hebrews in the ancient world, as animal, grain, and drink offerings were common to the religious cults of Mespoptamia and Syro-Palestine,” writes Andrew Hill, “While the parallels between Israelite and ancient Near-Eastern sacrificial practices attest to the universal need for humans to placate the gods, the Hebrew sacrificial system was distinctive in that it was directed toward the goal of personal and community holiness.”
If the ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ divide laid out in its pages seem arbitrary, it’s because it is. Offerings are made to impute ‘cleanness’ on things ‘unclean,’ and to ‘sanctify’ clean-but-‘common’ things and impute ‘holiness’ onto them. If a ‘clean’ or ‘holy’ thing makes contact with an ‘unclean’ thing, – a dead body, for example – it becomes ‘polluted’ and must begin again. I recall playground games that weren’t entirely different. It is tempting to assign moral weight to ‘uncleanness,’ but you’d only be half-right to do so, because ‘sin offerings’ are a different animal – pun regrettably intended. They were not, as it is sometimes assumed, a stand in for good character. Curiously, they seem to have done more to shape good character – or, even, to define good character to a people who consciences were being recalibrated – than anything.
They are never prescribed for premeditated wrongs. One could not, for example, set aside a choice animal on Tuesday to sacrifice on Thursday as recompense for his scheduled visit to the whorehouse on Wednesday. There is no sacrifice laid out for those who plan atrocities – which is interesting, because that leaves only ‘unintentional sins’ to be atoned for by sacrifice. This ought to jostle us at least a little bit, since most of us assume we can’t be held accountable for wrongs we didn’t even know we were participating in.
What this testifies to is that although the division of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ foods, and objects, and bodies may be arbitrary, the concrete division between cleanness and uncleanness is not. That is, to be declared ‘unclean,’ or ‘clean,’ is a formality to be abided by, but hardly the end-goal in itself. It is an exercise of sorts directed at awakening the Hebrews to something deeper: Namely, that ‘uncleanness’ is the norm. That long-discarded Augustinian trope, ‘inherited guilt,’ gets something right – that everything that is, is unacceptable by virtue of being. It is not, in truth, that the neighbor became unclean by waking up with his arms around his wife who died in the night. He was already polluted, because he is himself. We are not made unclean through carousing or debauchery, as though our default mode was ‘love thy neighbor.’ We are unclean because we are ourselves, and given time we will grow up into the mongrels we were born to be. We rarely sin on purpose, as Leviticus seems to realize, and we don’t need to. We victimize because we’re ourselves. It’s our nature.
‘What is man that you are mindful of him?’ One is rightly confused when, in the middle of a quaint service at cozy bible church, this particular line from the eighth Psalm is preached in such a way as to denigrate mankind, to imply that it is somehow surprising that God is mindful of humanity. We are what He made, after all, and He did not seem displeased at the outset.
The tone with which the verse is read affects the meaning more than one might imagine. If, for example, it were read from the pulpit as ‘What is man that You are mindful of him?” then our impression might be that the Psalmist cannot fathom why the God he addresses might treasure a humanity so dingy and commonplace. This is certainly the reading with which I am the most acquainted. If, however, the verse is read as such: “What is man, that You are mindful of him?” – then the meaning changes.
Not, of course, that some new doctrine arrives out of it. It only reinforces what is already well attested throughout the scriptures: We are, somehow, the image of the God who made us, which Jacob took to mean that when we see the face of our neighbors we really see the face of God. Calvinists of old took this to an extreme: We should not depict the Lord in any artwork, they said, not because He isn’t worth depicting, but because He has depicted Himself already – inerrantly, we might say, in Jesus of Nazareth, the ‘true Human,’ the ‘firstborn of many brothers’ in the ‘new Creation,’ who is, Himself, the ‘radiance of God’s glory, and exact representation of His being’ – but, also, in humanity at large. To make images of the Godhead is idolatrous, they believed, because it usurps not only the risen Jesus, but also humanity itself as the image we have been given of the Lord.
So when I say that we are polluted because we are ourselves, I do not mean this like the Gnostics mean it. Our body – ‘this mortal coil’ – is not the problem. Rather, we have bad souls in broken bodies and the product is disastrous. This is not by design; it is devilry. We bear the image of God in ourselves by virtue of existing, and not one inch of us does not exist to glorify the God whose face we see in one another. We are God’s glory and joy, overlaid with muck and mire so thick we’d be irredeemable if not for the insanity of the cross. We are exactly as repulsive, as we are, as we would need to be to move God to crucify Godself in a move to redeem what’s mad in us. We are precisely the sort of folks who would nail the incarnate Lord to a tree and sell his clothes for petty cash.
And, of course, we are ‘society.’ The ‘institution’ is us. We’re the stuff ‘the System’ is made of, and – not unrelated – we’re the stuff holocausts are made of. The decent folks down the street are well equipped to transform their city into a quiet dystopia, and, since we’re already suspending our disbelief, they already have, and you helped. We are unclean, and we are our cities. And our cities are unclean. And we are unclean, and we are the government, and we are the cops, and we are the prison system. We are the world you ought to expect given the fact of depravity.
Regrettably, white-knuckled denial of this fact is what underpins the better part of Conservative thought today. The norm, the structures, ‘the System,’ is fine, we are told, and whoever is trampled underfoot ought to reflect on how they went and got themselves underfoot. In any case, they’re certainly not entitled to anything like charity, we are told, or if they are, they certainly aren’t entitled to mine.
Well, that may be. Assuming, of course, that there is no debtor’s thread that runs through the whole of humanity, binding us together and obligating us to see to one another’s wounds. If there is no such thread, it is because there is no God – such a thread could not emerge arbitrarily, or even be unfurled at random, suddenly enjoined at the whims of a ‘Lawgiver.’ If there is a thread of sorts that runs through humanity, indebting each one to her neighbor, demanding kindness, or empathy, or even something so flamboyant as dignity, it can only be that it emerges from the nature of the God upon whom the drama of existence plays out. It must be that, as beings, we participate in Being itself in part by carrying on with one another according to a moral thread that transcends our mores and flows out from the very nature of Being. And we cannot participate in Being if there is no Being in which to participate, nor can we be obliged to anything.
If, however, there is a God, then the thread is real, and I am bound to its demands simply by existing. Not, of course, that someone can be entitled to another’s income, or to their space, or property. But the God who ‘owns the cattle on a thousand hills’ (Ps. 50:10) certainly owns mine, and is free to distribute His property however he pleases. By participating in Being at all, I noose myself to everyone I know and do not know, and so become their debtor, and there is no end in sight – we owe everything, to everyone, forever, not least to work alongside them for their liberation from the cycle of oppression.
A House for My Name by Peter Leithart, 2000, Canon Press
A Survey of the Old Testament by Gleason L. Archer Jr., 1964 (rev. 2007), Moody Publishers
A Survey of the Old Testament by John Walton and Andrew Hill, 1991 (rev. 2009), Zondervan
The Politics of Yahweh: John Howard Yoder, The Old Testament, and the People of God by John C. Nugent, 2011, Wipf and Stock
The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin, 2013, Oxford University Press