Reluctantly Hopeful

Today I want to respond to a comment on my last post. I had been talking about the Eucharist as a central symbol of the new way in which Christianity wanted to frame culture. I bemoaned the fact that in the way we practice it today we more or less completely miss the power of the original sacrament because we have reinterpreted it within the framework of a neo-Christian culture that has reshaped the message of Jesus to make God more (violent) familiar and comfortable. The commentator’s observation was that I seemed to have given up hope of humanity ever retrieving the way of relating embodied in the original liturgy.  

Let me be frank. I have absolutely no faith in humanity. Yuval Noah Harari, Professor of History at the University of Tel Aviv and author of the fabulous book Sapiens, does not believe that we will last another 1000 years as a species. Our predilection for reckless destruction, he argues, has put us on a trajectory towards self-annihilation from which we cannot escape. I think he is correct: I do not believe that we have what it takes to shift the course of our collective journey. We will destroy our planet and ourselves in the process.

As I alluded to in my previous post, if we are to have any hope of moving beyond our self-destructive violence, we need to elect to extricate ourselves from those systems that perpetuate the violence. In short, we need to choose to define ourselves not in the first instance by religion or culture, not by political affiliation, not by ideology or creed, but by our common humanity. We need to give up on the lie that we are autonomous beings, and accept that our identities are forged in mimicry – not only of those we like and admire, but by all humankind. And then we need to choose a non-violent way of dealing with the rivalry that our mimetic natures invariably generate. In other words, we need to define ourselves outside of religion and culture, which are the products of our violent ways of containing this rivalry. I do not believe we can.  

We live in times when we are becoming increasingly aware of the injustices in our systems. More than any other time in the history of our species, we are conscientised to the problems of systemic racism, sexism, and homophobia.  We are – to our credit – making a genuine effort to “decolonise”, to redress the injustices of our past. But in the process we have failed to recognise that culture itself is at the heart of the problem. In our zeal to eliminate scapegoats, we have blinded ourselves to the fact that it is culture (not a culture) that creates scapegoats. We have seen that social injustice has resulted from the way that Western culture has been practiced, but we have not understood that the problem of scapegoating violence is not particular to Western culture. It is characteristic of all culture. Our failure to recognise this means we have opted – as our solution to the problem of systemic injustice – to attempt to validate all cultures. We have not recognised the necessity of invalidating them all. I do not believe we ever will either.  Our sense of self is too dependent on the cultural systems that enslave us. We fail to understand that these are not fixed, external frameworks in which we find belonging, but dynamic expressions of the complex relationships between perceived desire, mimetic tension and the need to maintain social cohesion ; that we create culture, even as it creates us. And because we see culture as an external force, we retreat into it for safety in uncertain times. We simply would not know who we were – how to go about defining ourselves – without the artifice that is culture. And so the cycle continues.

Added to that is my belief that the powers that be – those who control the world – have too much invested in keeping things this way to allow us to change. I am going to venture into conspiracy theory territory here, but it needs to be said. You would be sorely mistaken if you thought that the age of imperialism was over. We are mimetic beings, remember, and desire is at the root of the formation of self. This means that acquisitiveness and power will always drive people, and  – so long as there are mimetic rivals – there will never be a point where those who have money and power feel that they have enough. There will always be rivals because there will always be other people. And so, as long as there a humans, there will be empires.

Only nowadays the empires look different.  Empires were always about power and wealth, not about political boundaries. When power and wealth resided with national leaders, as they did in the past, empires and nation states could be synonymous. Today, things are a little more complicated. Money and power do not necessarily reside with the state.

Today’s empires are corporate. Nation states have little real power in modern global power structures – they are simply convenient ways of organising people and regulating consumer behaviour.  The real power today lies with international businesses, not national leaders. My country, South Africa, has been investigating “State Capture” for a number of years now, since it came to light that certain businessmen were using governmental structures to enrich themselves. I do not believe that we are in any way unique. I cannot conceive of any national government not being “captured”. Ours just got found out.

And I am certain that the heads of these empires have everything to gain by keeping things running the way they are. So long as people are needy and sick and poor and uneducated, they can be readily exploited. The fact is that the wealthiest 100 or so people in the world have the capacity – both in terms of resources and in terms of access to expertise – to solve the major crises facing the world today. It would not be particularly challenging to solve the problem of hunger or to begin the process of reversing climate change. There is simply no will to do so. And insisting that our national governments act to address the matter is pointless – they are essentially puppets. They have no power to effect real change.

So I have absolutely no faith in the capacity of humanity to change. It would require a collective effort, and that is – I believe – beyond us. Those who have the power to drive social change are too invested in keeping things as they are. They seem to prefer bleeding us dry and moving on to finding sustainable alternatives. The majority of people are simply too uneducated (through no fault of their own and very possibly by deliberate design) to come to a collective understanding of the situation they are really in, and culture and politics and ideologies provide at least some measure of comfort.  They provide a buffer against an otherwise insensible world. Why would anyone give that up? That is why I see no hope for us as a species.

And yet…

In the midst of all of this, is the figure of Jesus. The risen Jesus complicates my thinking. Here is why.

While the early church should probably be considered a failed experiment, it is still hard for me to ignore the fact that at least for a little while, they managed to get it right. Whole groups of people managed to set aside cultural conditioning and all the boundary-markers culture imposes and to accept other people – regardless of their nationalities or gender or socio-economic status – as equals. It is absolutely remarkable. Yes, Christianity then became its own sort of exclusive culture and soon lost sight of the heart of Jesus’s teachings. It morphed into the monstrous behemoth we have today. But it wasn’t always that way. However briefly it may have lasted, humanity embraced a better way. That must mean something.

The figure I wrestle with the most is Jesus. He is an obstacle that demands that I hope, even when I see none. Some people wrestle with whether or not Jesus rose from the dead, or even whether he existed at all. I do not. I wrestle because I believe both to be true. The Risen Jesus insists that there is hope even when the evidence, and all logical reasoning, insists otherwise. And as somebody who tends to trust reasoning, Jesus presents me with a real crisis of faith.

Maybe at this point I need to provide a quick explanation of what I mean by “faith”, to prevent any misunderstanding. “Faith” is, after all, a slippery term. Faith, for me, is not an intellectual activity first and foremost, although the intellect plays its part. Having faith is about trust. If I have faith in my car, I trust that it will get me to my destination. If I have faith in a person, I trust that they will do what they say they will do. Faith in God is about trusting God, not about believing that God exists (although trusting God would presuppose a belief that God exists). Modern Christianity tends to give one the impression that faith can be equated with intellectual assent to certain theological doctrines. If you do not believe in the infallibility of Scripture or in Penal Substitution Atonement Theory, for example, many will accuse you of having lost faith (trust me, I have experienced this regularly). But faith is not about creeds and doctrines or about codes of behaviour. It is about trusting God.

That is why Jesus presents me with a crisis of faith. How do I trust what the Risen Jesus implies – that there is hope for humanity – when nothing about humanity suggests even the faintest possibility of hope?

Let me try to explain my dilemma. If I accept that Jesus and God are one, which I do, then I must also accept that Jesus is fully representative of who God is, and also fully representative of humanity. Jesus is both.

I can accept the God part (now), although I think that is where most Christians get stuck. If Jesus is the full representation of the invisible God, as the gospels claim, then God is not an Aztec-type deity who demands blood-sacrifice; God does not relate in transactional ways; God is inclusive and forgiving and non-violent. It is a radical mindshift (especially given that Christianity has come to conceptualise God in exactly the opposite way), but I am comfortable making that shift.

But Jesus also represents humanity. I can deal with the possibility that his life and ethics might reflect the beauty we are capable of. I can accept that there are wise, peace-loving, inclusive, counter-cultural individuals. In my own country I have experienced these attributes in people like Nelson Mandela and Imtiaz Sooliman. But while this may be enough to inspire belief that individual humans can be redeemed, it is not enough to suggest that humanity collectively can be. The powers and principalities of this world nail individuals like that to a cross, and they do it while we stand by and cheer them on or run away and hide. Jesus as an individual is easy to trust. A risen Jesus is an altogether different proposition.

You see, a risen Jesus represents more than just an individual. This is the point Paul makes when he refers to Jesus as a second Adam, bringing life to all. On another occasion, he calls Jesus the first fruits of the Resurrection. His point is that what we see represented in Jesus’s resurrection is the resurrection of humanity. The salvation the gospels allude to is not an individual salvation, but a collective one.  And the resurrection is a glimpse into the future. It is a future where death and sin are conquered. (Again I hesitate to use the word “sin”, because it carries with it too much Evangelical baggage. I do not use it to mean a transgression of a holiness code, but as a state of being, enmired in a violent logos, that leads to death. “Sin”, in this definition, is more like a terminal condition than bad behaviour).

If Jesus’s resurrection is illustrative of the future, then there is hope. Humanity is redeemed. And that flies in the face of everything I see around me. Thus Jesus’s resurrection poses, for me, a real crisis of faith. Who do I trust? My own instincts, reasoning and observations; or the gospels? I choose to trust Jesus.

But my faith, if you like, is a reluctant one. Not because I find it difficult to trust the gospel accounts of Jesus, nor because of any doctrinal difficulties with Jesus revealing God. It is precisely because I trust the gospel accounts and accept Jesus as the full revelation of God that I struggle. The hardest truth to swallow from the gospel stories, at least for me, is that not only can humanity be redeemed, but it has already been, and the process is coming to fruition. I cannot believe that. But I do trust that to be true.

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