I call it Miserable Worm Theology. Its creed goes something like this: I am a miserable worm. My heart is completely bad. Even when I want to do good, I cannot because every inclination of my being is towards evil. God shouldn’t even look at me. I am unworthy. I understand why God wants to squish me like a bug, and every inclination of His [deliberate masculine pronoun] being is to do just that. I would squash me too. But I am ever so grateful that just as God’s holy foot was descending upon my loathsome head, Jesus came down, looking like a cockroach, and was obliterated in my place. And now I can scurry about on the floor of heaven, basking in the glow of God’s goodness, because whenever God is tempted to fumigate, He sees the face of Jesus on me, miserable roach that I am , and resists the urge.
Christians love it. It sounds pious and humble and it depicts God as suitably big and powerful. We Christians love us a big old God, filled with Righteous Indignation and venting His Wrath on the unclean (possibly because it gives us a good excuse to act likewise towards those we deem unclean ie. those who think or behave differently from us). And we justify His right to mash us beneath His Holy boot by convincing ourselves that we deserve it.
The engine of religion, as René Girard observes, is driven by scapegoating violence. Peace and reconciliation (in this case between God and humanity) is achieved through the violent brutalising of a substitutionary figure. This figure assumes the guilt of all, is burdened with responsibility for everything that has led to the breakdown in peaceful co-existence, and is violently expelled, restoring harmony. The problem is that this figure is never completely guilty – cannot be (how can the guilt of all people be legitimately transferred onto another, no matter how bad that person is?) – and so the whole process is inherently unfair. And so ways need to be found to justify the violence, so that the problem of its illegitimacy can be ignored. Religion turns on solving this problem (often through sacrifice). Miserable Worm Theology makes us the scapegoat: God is absolutely just in destroying us to restore cosmic harmony, and MWT is an attempt to legitimate that and hide the fact that scapegoating – even when God is the instigator – is inherently unjust. The only way God’s squishing us would be even remotely acceptable would be if there was absolutely nothing redeemable about us and we posed an otherwise insurmountable threat to the greater good (and even then squishing us would be a fairly brutal exercise of divine power), so MWT (and penal substitutionary views of the atonement) have to make people completely degenerate and beyond redemption. More than that, it needs to construct us as threatening the greater good. MWT seems like the righteous way to take because it fits the scapegoating aims of religious practice. So we see nothing wrong with saying: “Apart from God’s influence in my life, there is nothing good about me.”
But it is not true. We are not miserable worms, utterly devoid of value outside of God. We are beautiful and we are very good. That is what God declares at the completion of Hen’s creation in Genesis 1. We are, the writer of Genesis declares, made in God’s image (both male and female: see Genesis 1:27). If we are miserable worms, utterly depraved, then so is God. But if Jesus is the picture of God, then clearly God is not a depraved, bloodthirsty, egotistical, vengeful monster. And in that case, neither are we. When,as Paul writes in Romans 3:23, our sinfulness makes us “fall short of the glory of God”, the problem is not that our sinfulness makes us fall short of some holy standard of acceptability; it is that sin makes us incapable of realising the full capacity of our created beauty, of living to the full extent of our God-designed potential. The glory of God, wrote St Ignatius, is humanity fully alive. Sin may pervert us, cripple us, but it does not change our essential nature. Think about it: if we were completely sinful from birth, then the incarnation of Christ is invalid: Jesus would be sinful from birth too and any claims to his sinlessness would be utterly ridiculous. If Jesus is completely human and completely divine, then while it would follow that – as he claims in John 14 – those who have seen him have seen everything that God is, it would also follow that those who have seen Jesus have also seen everything that humanity can be.
Already I hear the challenges: what about David’s claim in Psalm 51:5: “Surely I was sinful from birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me”, or Jeremiah’s lament in Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” How silly of me to ignore “what the Bible says”. Because it makes complete sense to take a couple of verses from the anguished writings of two men who were in deep distress, divorce them entirely from everything else those two men wrote (much of which would even contradict the conclusions we are about to draw), and make those two small verses speak comprehensively not only for those two men, but for all the writers of all the texts that comprise the Bible, which have been written over thousands of years and from a variety of cultures, and more than that, for all people in all times, and – not to be forgotten – for God. It makes complete sense. Clearly it would make more sense to derive a Christian theology on human value from those two verses rather than from the broader picture painted by Jesus’s teachings and ethics. The Bible said it. I believe it. That settles it. Yup, I’m convinced.
Pardon my cheekiness, but I can’t recall reading a passage in the gospels where Jesus said: “I love you but my holiness cannot tolerate the presence of your sinfulness, and my unwavering sense of retributive justice demands I take your life for thus offending my sight”. Maybe I haven’t been reading closely enough, but I seem to have missed that bit. I must have been caught up in all that eating with the sinners and tax-collectors stuff, and side-tracked by his merciful ethics and lifestyle. And then there were all those diatribes against the religious leaders who were obsessed with holiness codes, and his standing up for those who were branded as unclean by the religious community. Forgive me (if you can), but I seem to have overlooked the part where Jesus – God incarnate and the fullness of God revealed – took offence at the sinful humanity that surrounded him, and denounced them as ugly and unworthy.
My Christmas message to you, my reader, is this: Jesus’ incarnation speaks not to your inherent sinfulness, but to your inherent worth. In Jesus we see not only how much our sin has broken us, but also the potential of our inherent beauty. The incarnation speaks not to God’s desire to obliterate our ugliness, but Hens longing for our beauty – the beauty of Hens image – to be restored. You are beautiful and you are good. And when you take the bushel off of that lamp and let it shine from the hilltops, when you – in other words – accept your goodness and express it (and I am talking about walking a path of peace and love, not about pursuing personal holiness), you bring glory to God and you help build God’s kingdom. The birth of Jesus is indeed worth celebrating, not only because the Light of the World exposes our darkness so that we can stop defending it and see the harm we inflict on ourselves and others by submitting to it, but because it allows us to see our potential, who we were meant to be.
You see, if you are incapable of seeing yourself as anything more than a miserable worm, you are incapable of seeing the true worth in anyone else as well. After all, we are all human, and if that means we have no intrinsic value, then we will eventually treat others with complete disdain and brutality. We cannot love others as Jesus commanded, so long as we see ourselves as miserable worms.
I will leave you to mediate on the introduction to John’s gospel. Try to read it (particularly verse 12) without the lens of the penal substitution theology to which you have become accustomed, and I hope that, as I have, you find peace in the beauty of what John is suggesting. I have left out some of it, not because I am trying to change the message (it doesn’t change it), but because it refers to John the Baptist, and that is not where I wish you to focus:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
… 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.