Christians rightly believe that God exists, as it were, in two dimensions - both as ever-present and as beyond the present and all time and space, as amongst us and ultimately apart from us. This is something we have inherited from the ancient and pre-monotheistic world.
By itself this says very little. These attributes or categories become in some hands a series of platitudes or a kind of polytheism or they set us up for certain poles of unknowing which work against action and reflection. Agnosticism and atheism are logical responses to a Christian project which stops here.
Let us consider that these attributes or categories of God exist as opposites - ever-present and distant, in human history and beyond history, forever amongst us and ultimately Other. There is a tension here and we must ask ourselves in what ways these apparent contradictions are resolved and what this resolution means.
In Genesis we read:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
In John we read:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Within and from those apparent opposing forces, then, something new is created that signals life and is owned or held by no one. We have the appearance of the material world and we have Jesus Christ. Within that material world in short order we have human beings with free will and human frailty. New, apparently opposing, forces are generated. Christ appears in human form at a specific point amidst these contending forces and says
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.
Christ's proclamation of a historically imminent Kingdom, constructed with the justice foreseen by the Old Testament prophets, and His ultimate triumph over death, which is imprinted into this Kingdom so that it may be shared by all, resolves certain oppositions but also create new ones. The days of the old world are numbered but the trappings of free will and human frailty remain, though they exist in transformed states. These resolutions and progressions are grasped in at least four fundamental ways by the early Christian communities.
They are grasped as unfolding historic liberation and linked to faith. We have seen this previously in Hebrews 11. Slavery and national oppression are opposed by God's people in wars of national liberation. A national consciousness, however contradictory, is part of the development of the salvific project. In Hebrews this is broadened to be expressed as a solidarity upon which salvation rests. This becomes an unfolding centerpiece of Christianity.
They are grasped on the personal level. In Romans we read
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
The condition of personal alienation, then, is recognized as a condition, as something which may be transformed through struggle. It is sacramental to the extent that this struggle leads to salvation. It is politicized to the extent that this condition of alienation and our struggles with it are recognized and understood as being shared by all people. A door is thus opened to a new kind of solidarity and, in our day, to a form of ecumenism which finds its common ground in a struggle against all alienation which is both personal and political.
They are grasped in the Beatitudes given to us in Matthew 5.3-12. Ten affirmative and liberating blessings, each one leading logically to the next, stand as if they either replace or modify the ten prohibitive commandments of the Old Testament. Power and relationships, once each a locus and barometer of alienation, are redefined for the poor and powerless.
They are grasped in a social project dependent upon a redistribution of wealth and power. In Acts we read:
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
We see also in Acts the account of Ananias and Sapphira who were struck down by the Holy Spirit for hoarding wealth and lying about it. We see in both passages a here-and-now fulfillment in human terms of all that has been prepared before; the project of salvation, greater than the redistribution of human wealth, will not be separated from that project either.
None of this would be possible or evident to us if God existed only in contradictory dimensions or actions. The actions and revelations described here presuppose both a divine energy and force and a method of sharing and transmitting this energy. God exists as Creator and God exists as Jesus Christ. This method of sharing and transmitting the creative and revealing force and energies of Creator and Christ - the force or person in which all that appears as contradictory within the Divine God is resolved - is the Holy Spirit. We speak here of a self-contained and self-revolutionizing Trinity which contains and shares unlimited energies within a divine and eternal relationship while also being in relationship with humanity and human history.
"Relationship" here assumes contradictions and oppositions, struggles, mutual responsibilities, paths and ultimately shared understandings between worlds and the justified hope that a fundamental transformation will take place so that humanity may share in the divinity of Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit. All healthy relationships between parents and children or between freely consenting lovers serve as a paradigm or point of departure for understanding this greater relationship.
To speak of alienation here is to speak of how our energy, thinking, spirit and work are externalized - actually taken from us and reshaped - and how they become their own opposites, appearing to us as if they are the products of another person or beyond the grasp of human beings altogether. It is the loss of the affirming self and the triumph, however temporary, of that which negates the self and moves us into social arrangements which are neither of our own choosing nor of our own design.
Capitalism is, at its base, a system of organized but competitive alienation. The worker sells her labor power under the compulsion of fear of destitution and receives a relatively meager wage. The object or the service produced appears in society as something other than what she created because it appears with a price tag attached. It has been produced for profit and, as a secondary consideration, for use. Families, education, religion, art, entertainment, procreation - all adapt to the rhythms and possibilities of production and distribution. A "moral relativism" develops out of these conditions as relations of production and distribution stumble along.
At a point in human history religion seems to have been itself a form of alienated production and distribution. The forced labor required to build the imposing temples to the gods meant that production and distribution themselves belonged to the gods, if only as indirectly or in illusory ways. The emergence of the Abrahamic faiths signals a rupture within an alienated form of production and distribution. The faith is present in new forms of alienation but begins to develop and inculcate among the faithful a consciousness of themselves in relationship to the One God. The relationship is one of mediated power and law, justice, compassion and mercy and the possibility that any person may experience some form of divinization or Theosis through inheritance, adoption, grace or struggle.
Marx's point that humans give life to gods and so lose or diminish their own lives is true in the case of idolatry, be it the idolatry of false gods or in the subtraction of anything from the liberating message and work of God. This message is often repeated in the Old Testament. The gods emerging from alienation are condemned as strongly as are the cultic practices of those who turn away from their experience of liberation. In both cases the prohibitions and condemnations directly concern the misunderstanding or distortion of God's transcendent dimension, that faculty of God which creates and transmits an energized relationship within a Godhead and with humanity. Affirming this dimension or faculty of God means affirming human liberation because it affirms God amongst us and in our history and as the means and end of salvation. Negating this dimension or faculty negates the icon or image of God present in each person.
In Exodus we find the golden calf, in 2 Kings the cultic temples and the rod of Manasseh, in Wisdom the unwholesome worship of nature. In Jeremiah and Isaiah we see that those who produce the idols do so under conditions of alienation and deal very much in illusions of power. The evil resident in what they produce is an evil which distorts or destroys nature and people. These books must be read in a context which admits and links both the spiritual and the political through an analysis and recounting of a peoples oppression and liberation. Thus read, we see that idolatry of any sort is linked to the conditions of oppression.
In the New Testament we find idolatry tied to greed and wealth and considered as a particular vice. Enslavement to nature, law and empire are similarly condemned.
With these readings we understand that "the tasks of making God real" entails a break with the mythic. It is not that god has commanded us to leave idolatry behind and so created a category of sin. The point is that a liberating historical process has been unleashed and that oppressive gods must be overthrown if that process is to culminate in Theosis. The mythical must pass on in order that true faith may emerge. This task of unmasking the mythical and living without illusions remains before us.
Along the path to its peculiar forms of idolatry American capitalism has developed or discovered a type of gnosticism. The old gnosticism has given way to the belief that the world is the dwelling place of conflicting powers, some of whom are evil and plot to keep the individual enslaved, while "gods" contend around us and a secret knowledge save an elect few. These elect and their followers speak or obey a secret language of power. The old gnostic fallen woman, the cause of the wreckage of the world, is now replaced by images of commercialized sexuality. If archeology and science do not yet consist of the study of emanations, the favorable or unfavorable movement of the planets, the spirit forces and magic words, they are certainly under pressure to solve the questions arising from certain distorted and politicized offshoots of Christianity and Christian zionism. The young, the lonely, the out-of-work, those forced into pessimism and those who search for meaning are targeted by the New Age industry which produces its theology out of alienation. It accompanies the theologies of empire and neo-liberalism which place their faith in markets, treaties and, ultimately, armies.
Certainly the practice of idolatry in regards to law and empire remain with us. The conditions of capitalist alienation call forth the worship of production, goods and accumulation. The very means of production, which are achieved through many sorts of compulsion and coercion, almost insure that this is so. They work to abstract from humanity a sense of ourselves and the experience of the truly sacred.
The problem confronting Christianity is not atheism as such, but a resurgent gnosticism and a capitalist-induced fetishization of idolatry which oppresses us. The retreat from politics by liberal Christians has ceded the ground to reactionaries and neo-liberals who have theologies of their own - gnosticism, idolatry, Christian zionism - and has helped to leave the oppressed almost defenseless against our oppressors.