The Desacralization of Christianity

The Desacralization of Christianity February 4, 2017

One of the things that I stressed in my book The Jesus Driven Life was that Jesus deconstructed the three pillars of second Temple Judaism: Land, Temple and Torah. Jesus did not share in the views of his contemporaries that certain tracts of land were ‘holy’ (see John 4), nor were certain religious establishments ‘holy’ (see his criticism of the Temple in Mark 13 and his prophetic action in the Temple in Mark 11) and like the prophets before him (Jeremiah, Amos etc) Jesus also critiqued the Torah, arguing against it, modifying it, using it against itself etc.

Jesus desacralized everything he came into contact for in Jesus’ view only One was Holy and that was God. Holiness had little to do, in Jesus’ teaching, with codes of ritual purity or social separation. In the JDL I took a cue from Marcus Borg that Jesus replaced his contemporaries’ emphasis on ‘holiness’ with ‘mercy.’

I bring this up because Christianity, in the minds of many, is a sacred religion. Some forms of Christianity have sacralized space (altars with the bones of ‘holy’ persons buried beneath them) or entire cities (the Vatican). Some forms of Christianity have sacralized the Bible, the ‘holy book’ complete with doctrines of inerrancy and inspiration.

It seems to me that one of the greatest things Christians can do is to follow Jesus in the desacralization of space, time, place and texts. In other words, nothing is sacred, everything is profane. Some may balk at this and say “No. Everything is sacred” but they are then using a different definition of the word than I am giving it. Until someone is able to demonstrate otherwise, it seems to me the most appropriate working definition of the term ‘sacred’ is that it stems from violence, so much so that the terms ‘sacred’ and violence can be conjoined (as in Violence and the Sacred) or are even synonyms. Girard’s theory of religion, namely that all that humans call sacred, the gods, sacred places, sacred texts, sacred rituals, etc, all stem from the process of ritual sacrificial practices against random scapegoats. In other words, the sacred is bloody.

Now it seems to me that the entirety of the Gospel narrative is invested in desacralizing our religio-cultural viewpoint regarding the sacred, by helping us see our propensity for sacred violence: the invocation of deity in our human acts of destruction, immolation, sacrifice and war. If Girard is correct (and I believe he is), then any theory of religion must take into account this critical juxtaposition of Violence and the Sacred.  To fail to do so is to begin to ‘mythologize’ the Gospel, the very story whose entire project and point is to desacralize our humanly constructed religious worldviews.

In this light if we are going to be proper Christians this means we will examine our own tradition and begin to desacralize it just as Jesus did to the religion in which he was born. Modern Christianity has not replaced ancient Judaism, it is just another form of archaic religion, the kind of archaic religion into Jesus found himself and from which he would extricate all of us by once for all divesting the sacred of violence, taking all violence upon himself and constructively deconstructing the ideologies produced by sacred violence by a) being vindicated by God in the resurrection, b) proffering forgiveness instead of vengeance and c) by showing us, in his life and in his death, how we may model his desacralization process (otherwise known as ‘discipleship’).

In this sense any form of Christianity which ‘sacralizes’ something, that is, devotes it to God, has committed the very sin which the Gospel forgives. Holiness is not the solution but the problem. We have turned the problem into the solution and thus, as a religion, have a long history of making victims and claiming divine authority or justification for so doing.

Adherents of sacred violence will always decry those who follow ‘the slippery slope’ of desacralization for they are correct: once the church or the Bible becomes desacralized, it becomes profane, or part of the common world or the common public. And this is exactly what has happened in Protestantism for the past 350 years or more. This is why Fundamentalists and Evangelicals are so terrified at losing their ‘Holy Book’ for they know once that happens they will no longer be able to call upon their ‘Holy God’ in order to justify their ‘Holy Mythology’ of violence. They somehow intuit that the desacralization of the Book leads to the profanation of the planet where all life would be considered precious.  They somehow sense that without their ‘Holy Book’ the marks of differentiation which allow them to parade their ‘rightness’ and also allow them to justify theologies that differentiate (Christian/Pagan, Heaven/Hell, saint/sinner) also fall by the wayside. Well, Hallelujah, it is the Gospel that is breaking down these humanly constructed sacred walls (Eph 2, Gal 3:28ff).

It is not the desire to live ‘unholy’ lives that is bringing about the desacralization of the Christian faith; nor is it some alleged desire for people to run amok in moral chaos. No. It is the cross of Christ which is doing all this damage to Christianity as a religion, for the Gospel was never meant to form a religion. It is the one message that destructures, invalidates and critiques all religion and it begins first and foremost with that religion which claims the Gospel for itself, Christianity.

If you are looking for someone to blame for the desacralization of Christianity, don’t blame the gays or the academics or the liberals or the commies or the Muslims or the atheists. Blame God. For it was God who was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self, it was Jesus who was crucified outside the city in the profane space. It is by the Spirit of God that we are finally able to get past all of our religious superstition and come to terms with the reality that all life is profane before the Cross; and thus if we are going to reinvest space, time , place and history with ‘sacredness’ it will be a sacredness of nonviolence, of peacemaking, of love. This alone is the ‘true’ sacred.

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