Author Archives: Dr. Larry Taylor

Kierkegaard, Christianity and Contemporary Civil Religion in the United States

Like his mentor and role model Socrates, Søren Kierkegaard sought to challenge the established ideas of his contextual society through the use of irony in order to lead the interlocutor to see the fallacies of his own arguments and the poverty of his expertise. In his final series of essays, Kierkegaard juxtaposes New Testament Christianity with the Danish State Church. Whereas early believers lived contemporaneously with Jesus and followed Him to their own martyred deaths, believing in His divinity as God’s chosen Messiah and Son of God, state sponsored churches made Christianity so easy that one became a Christian without any commitment or effort, but only by virtue of birth. Christians were born Christians. They were “in” unless they chose to be “out,” and even then, were often still granted church sponsored rites (as was Kierkegaard after his death). To be a “Christian” became meaningless in terms of commitment and synonymous in terms of citizenship. “Christians” were the dominant group, held the wealth and political power, faced no persecution or loss due to their faith, and, indeed, were the most honored of the society. 

This form of “Christianity” or Christendom properly began with Constantine’s Edict of Tolerationin 313 AD, expanded with the Edict of Thessalonicaby Emperor Theodosius, which in AD 380 made Nicene Christianity the state religion of Rome. During the first three centuries of Christianity, followers of Jesus, almost without exception, renounced all forms of violence, refused to participate in official government roles, refused military service, and renounced the lordship of the Caesars.  They insisted on proclaiming, “Jesus is lord,” which meant, “and Caesar is not.”

Gaius Octavius dissolved the Roman Senate and ushered in the era of absolute despotism after adopting the title Caesar Augustus, attributing deity to himself, claiming to be the son of the gods, proclaiming his ascension as the evangel, and coining the phrase, “There is no other name under heaven by which one can be saved except by Caesar Augustus.” Rome’s military bludgeoned every woman, man, and child into submission through violent force. The Romans perfected crucifixion into the most torturous method ever devised to kill humans and used crucifixion extensively as a weapon of terrorism to subjugate whole people groups. When an uprising, or even criticism of Rome arose, legionnaires swooped into villages, gathered people at random and nailed them to crosses for all to see. The individual freedom Socrates championed was crushed. 

Christians, the early followers of Jesus, however, refused to call Caesar “lord,” bow to his images, or participate in his armies. Many Jews who saw their belief that a man, Jesus, was God incarnate as blasphemy already despised believers. (It should be noted that Jesus was Jewish, as were all of His original apostles and followers.) Now, beginning with Augustus, followers of Jesus were persecuted by the state as atheists for refusing to accept Roman gods and traitors for refusing to bow to Caesar. The best religion of the day, Judaism, and the best political culture of the day, Rome, combined to first crucify Christ, then to martyr Christians. 

After the Edict of Toleration, persecution stopped. After the Edict of Thessalonica, Christians found themselves in power. Theologians, notably Augustine, scrambled to accommodate the teachings of Jesus to the power structures of the empire. Augustine taught that one could love one’s neighbor while killing him. The clear teaching of nonviolent love for and forgiveness of enemies that Jesus taught and demonstrated on the cross, and which the Apostle Paul reiterated in his writings was reinterpreted to not only permit, but glorify war, killing on behalf of the state, and participating in political power. This perspective dominated the Orthodox Church in the eastern portion of the Roman Empire, and the Latin (later Roman Catholic) Church in the west. It continued to dominate among the Reformers. Luther and Calvin both sanctioned violence. Only the radical reformers, the Anabaptists, seized upon the teachings of Christ, most notably the Sermons on the Mount and on the Plain (Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6) and insisted that one became a Christian by personal decision, not by birth, and that, having decided to follow Jesus, one was obligated to renounce all violence, forgive one’s enemies, refuse military service, and seek the way of peace as a lifestyle. For their trouble, the Anabaptists were persecuted and martyred by Protestants and Catholics alike. 

Colonists from Europe profoundly influenced by the Enlightenment founded the United States of American. Justified by papal, royal, and clerical edicts, they invaded North America, killed or subjugated native peoples, stole their land, and imported African slaves to build a global economy. With the exception of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, all the first presidents were slaveholders. 

A civil religion utilizing Christian terminology, adopting post-Constantinian theology of empire, and blending Enlightenment ideals developed. This civil religion dominates today. Conservative Catholics and white evangelical Christians in the States worship the state, seek and enjoy political power, embrace consumerist exploitative capitalism, support the military and nationalistic wars, and see no contradiction with the teachings of Jesus in spite of the fact that what they believe and how they act are diametrically opposite those teachings. 

Kierkegaard boldly challenged the Danish State Church. Modern Anabaptists, such as members of the Church of the Brethren and Mennonites, and contemporary neo-Anabaptists are today utilizing Kierkegaardian principals as they insist on refusing military service, refuse to pledge allegiance to any flag or nation other than the Kingdom of God, respond to injury with cruciform love, and seek to live nonmaterialistic simple lives of generosity and service to the neediest among us. 

Like Kierkegaard, they make Christianity less attractive and less easy. Being a Christian means actually doing what Jesus said to do – turn the other cheek, go the second mile, forgive one’s enemies, become the servant of all, lay down your life for others, and so on. Like Kierkegaard, they eschew political power and seek to change the world through individual hearts rather than legislation or military might. 

Today, in the United States, conservative Catholics and white evangelical Protestants are enthusiastically championing political leaders whose personal behaviors and policy positions are diametrically opposed to the teachings of Christ. They have a passion, but it is an unreflective passion. In Kierkegaard’s thought, there is a distinction between reflective and nonreflective passion – the former being wholehearted enthusiasm based on careful thought and consideration; the latter being based on false premises or ideals. The terrorist acts on nonreflective passion; the Christian martyr on reflective passion.

Modern conservative Catholics and white evangelical Protestants often quote from Romans 13 in support of their “chosen one.” The key to understanding Romans 13 is to not separate it from Romans 12. Chapter 12 instructs us clearly to embrace nonviolent cruciform love. Chapter 13 tells us to accept the consequences when obeying God is contrary to the laws of human society. We do not obey the government, but we submit to it. We obey God. Thus, referencing Kierkegaard again, there is sometimes a legitimate teleological suspension of the ethical. At times the individual, ruled by God, is higher than the accepted universal ethic.

Faith, for Kierkegaard, is paradoxical in that it is not based strictly on what is reasonable or logical. Faith may lead us to behaviors that result in persecution, loss, even death. Unlike human reason, faith is not focused on self-preservation. We must learn to follow Jesus contemporaneously; i.e., to enter into our apprenticeship with Him, as did the first disciples who expected no monetary rewards or societal honors. Conversely, they knew that following Jesus meant persecution. Daily, they took up their crosses joyously, denying themselves, to follow the Master. The reward is in knowing Him, in being with Him. 

Musings by a 60-something Jesus Freak

Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner writes: “The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Where is God inviting me to greater meaning and joy?

Where is God inviting me to join Him as He makes all things new?

While the burning passion of my inner-most being is to join with others in radical, countercultural nonviolent subversive expressions of cruciform love and divine shalom, all around me are age-peers who, though once fervent for Jesus, now seem to desire only to either die leaving a “legacy,” or retreat into restful oblivion. Like fat old men slurping cheap beer at the VFW reminiscing of by-gone (and often fictitious) glory — men who fire off blanks at funerals, fold flags, and pin medals on each other — many of the radical Jesus freaks of old appear content to fade away into heaven. Nothing dramatic, nothing newsworthy, just the slow hiss of deflation like an inflatable snowman leaking air. 

Certainly, as we age, health issues arise, energy levels drop, and ministries shift. But equally, wisdom surges, spiritual depth escalates, relationships settle, quiet confidence (in an area or two) develops, and priorities come into sharp focus. I’ve been with many a man on his deathbed and have yet to hear one lament that he spent too much time with his family or wasted time in too much prayer. One reason for the wisdom and empathy of seniors is that they have suffered. 

That we live in a youth oriented culture is not news to anyone. Everything is geared to the young and vibrant. Millennials scoff at Boomers. Those who lived through the Great Depression and World War II are warehoused in nursing homes by their Boomer children who have voted into power the very fascism their parents fought against. Once radical, now aging, Jesus Freaks champion reactionary totalitarian despots preaching white supremacy and nationalistic jingoism. 

All of this I reject adamantly. In whatever time I have left, and with whatever level of energy I may have, I vow to flame out for Jesus. Pedal to the metal. Sprint to the finish. Leave it all on the field. Sip your beer with the fat guys if you want, I’m jumping in the trenches. Will it cost me my life? Hopefully. 

Loving Yourself Unselfishly Acts 20:18-24

Keep Yourself in the Love of God: The Epistle of Jude (please excuse my coughing fit — I know it's distracting)

Human Religion Leads to Sin: Jude, verses 8-11

Love in Four Directions. Part 1: Love God's Creation. Genesis, chapter 1

And Cain turned homicidal

After the devastating deception, God promised Eve that although the accuser, satan, would continue to strike at the heel, her offspring, her seed, would crush the serpent’s head. (Genesis 3:15) She quite understandably assumed that when she gave birth to her son Cain, that prophecy would be fulfilled through him. She exalted joyously. (Genesis 4:1) Later, when Abel was born, the scripture simply states the fact. No big deal. 

Subsequently, Cain must have grown up feeling pretty special. He was the one who would set this mess straight. So, as an adult, he seems to have reasoned that since his parents offended the Creator by stealing fruit, he would set things to rights by returning fruit to YHWH. Hence, his offering.

Religion was born – not the true religion of spreading God’s shalom to others because we love God, but human religion that substitutes pride for worship. Cain seeking to make things right between people and God by way of ritual, by way of doing something “religious.” That’s what human religion is all about – human effort through good works and ritual to get God on our side.

Abel, on the other hand, wasn’t trying to get God to do anything. Abel was simply expressing love to God with a freewill offering. It had nothing to do with blood. God never asked for blood; in fact, throughout the Bible, God makes it clear He wants nothing to do with blood sacrifices. (See Psalm 40:6; 51:16; Hosea 6:6; Hebrews 10:8, and Jesus’ words in Matthew 9:13 & 12:7.) People are perpetually misquoting Hebrews 9:22, which is talking about the Law of Moses, which has been done away with. Read the entire verse: According to the law, in fact, nearly everything must be purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.Blood sacrifices were the stuff of the pagans. God accommodated it when His people set the system up, but it was never God’s plan. Later, God in Jesus entered into that blood-sacrifice system and offered Himself, the Lamb of God, in order to once and for all do away with both the system and the sin it represented. That’s the major theme of the New Testament book of Hebrews. Abel’s act was one of pure worship. Cain’s was one of religious manipulation.

God accepted the former and rejected the latter.

And Cain turned homicidal.

Religion seeks to appease an angry god. Religion seeks to coerce humankind. Human religion is all about our efforts and knows nothing of grace. Human religion tries to align lives and societies the way we think they should be. When it doesn’t work, when it doesn’t get its way, human religion always turns violent. Witness the Crusades, Inquisition, slaughter of the radical reformer Anabaptists, genocide of Native Americans, chattel slavery, Third Reich, and wholehearted championing of politicians whose character and policies are diametrically opposite the teachings of Christ. All perpetrated by very religious “Christians.” 

The understanding of the atonement that portrays God as filled with wrath towards humankind that can only be appeased by being vented on an innocent Being, His Son, misrepresents the cross and misunderstands the heart of the Triune God who so loved the world He sent His son. Jesus is God. God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are one. Jesus is exactly like the Father. God the Father is exactly like Jesus. There is nothing unchristlike in God. Jesus said God doesn’t want blood sacrifice. God wants us to spread justice and mercy, kindness and forgiveness, towards others. We need do nothing to appease God. God is not angry. God’s wrath, properly understood, is the outworking of the consequences of the misuse of freedom, both human and angelic. Jesus’ death on the cross removed sin. Sin is off the table. As far as east is from west. Cast into the deepest sea. Forgiven, forgotten, gone forever, never to be even remembered by God. 

God desires justice and mercy towards others. What does God desire toward Self?

Love. Simply love. Freely given. Expressed from a grateful heart.  That is worship. That’s what Abel brought.

A Few Things I Am Trying to Learn

The path to divinity is through our humanity, not around it.

Satan is the enemy of human nature. Satan seeks to dehumanize and devalue us.

The more we express our humanity through healing, forgiving, serving, and rejoicing, the more God’s holiness shines through us. 


Let nothing disturb you, 

Nothing frighten you; 

All things are passing; 

God never changes; 

Patient endurance attains all things; 

Whoever possesses God is wanting in nothing; 

God alone suffices.

            — Saint Theresa of Ávila

Subversive Faith

The original Christians entered a revolutionary counterculture diametrically opposed to both religion and empire that cost them everything. Modern occidentals become “Christian“ without effort, adopting the acceptable standards of the zeitgeist and particular nationality. Relying on “Christianity“ to produce a steady stream of positive emotions, or accepting doctrines only because they are rationally logical, produces a partial and anemic faith. God becoming man is by definition irrational. God is eternal; humans are finite. Although following Jesus brings emotional joy and peace, and although Christian doctrine is highly rational, true Christianity is not fully discovered by feelings or philosophy, but revealed by God in Christ. It is counterintuitive, subversive, radical, and costly.

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