Posted by: rogermitchell | March 14, 2012

transcendent evil

For those of you already familiar with my research (set out in academic theological terms in my book Church, Gospel, & Empire: How the Politics of Sovereignty Impregnated the West (for details click above), you will know of my proposal that our Western understanding of divine transcendence has been subsumed by sovereignty.

Simply put, ever since the fourth century church identified its own progress, together with the Christianised Roman Empire, as evidence of the kingdom of God, it has assumed that hierarchical power was the way forward for the good of humankind. As we have seen from the first few chapters of Luke’s gospel in the recent posts, this was not how Luke understood the testimony of Jesus. Instead, the advent of Jesus was prepared for by John the Baptist in terms overtly contrary to empire. In this context, it is important not to miss the ‘coincidence’ that the deification of the Roman emperor that signalled the subsumption of transcendence by sovereignty took place in AD15 at the approximate time of the events recorded in Luke two, when Jesus stayed behind in the temple at the age of twelve (Lk 2:42-49).

So when the Christian Way became equated with what was assumed to be the righteous operation of sovereign power, it was a serious reversal, or what I have called a kind of second fall, after which Christianity was established as Christendom throughout the middle ages. The ensuing oppression of the multitude and constraint on human freedom led to an increasingly negative reaction to the very concept of transcendence itself. This was because having been subsumed by sovereignty, transcendence was viewed as the cause of a whole range of social ills, even although it was sovereign power, not the idea of transcendence itself that was the problem.

From the beginning of modernity onwards, this resistance to the transcendent led to an increasing focus on the immanent, the human and the rational, which many have branded as secularisation (what my academic supervisor Paul Fletcher called “predication on immanence”). It is my contention that this so-called secular world is only a continuation of the captivity to sovereignty that the fourth century marriage of church and empire brought about, and is not really secular at all, but still rooted in a view of life based on the all embracing power of sovereignty, which is really a covert kind of transcendence. It is this, rather than real historical or rational grounds that has led to much of the skepticism towards claims to transcendent encounter or the supernatural elements of the gospel accounts.

With postmodernity, the primacy of myth, metaphor and narrative over so-called scientific rationalism has allowed the gospel story to stand again in its own right. If we can also rescue our interface with the gospel testimony from captivity to a mindset that regards divine transcendence as implying domination, we can once again set about reconfiguring God from the Jesus of the incarnation story. However, when we do so, we discover not only a kenotic transcendence but also an evil transcendence, which opposes it. Luke’s testimony (Lk 4:1-13) portrays this evil form of transcendence as lying behind the domination system of empire. This is obvious from each of the three temptations which, I suggest, together disclose the deep structure of evil.

Transcendent evil is described in Luke’s testimony in terms (i) of materialism, (ii) of world domination and (iii) of celebrity.
In terms of materialism, Jesus is challenged by the devil to use what power he has to put his immanent, physical needs before the transcendent revelation of the divine nature (v. 3). In terms of world domination, Jesus is challenged to desire it above all else (vv. 5-7) and in terms of celebrity he is challenged to take the highest place in the temple and city (vv. 9-12). The narrative account suggests a strategy of deliberately confronting these things in the transcendent realm ourselves by fasting or some similar self-disciplinary exercise like Jesus did, and with our spiritual integrity forged in this way, prepare to deal with demonic powers manifest in the everyday world as we go about the positive love behaviour which the rest of the chapter describes.

More anon …


  1. Thanks for these reflections Roger I found them inspiring and provoking and they have stimulated some of my own musings within the theatre of life I live in. So I thought I would post for reflection. Please forgive me if they do not seem structured. I have only so much time for this and so most writing remains unedited!

    I have been exploring in the last few years the relationship between the spirituality of a child, the rites of passage and ‘adult spirituality.” In particular what is of interest is the decline of inherent gifts humanity is given by God to prepare us in navigating a life to the full. I have identified five specifically and I become more convinced that they are the roots to the spiritual carcass the rising generations have been conformed to or rejected. I will not name them all but one of note in the early years is the inherent desire to explore, to question, to ask why as opposed to conform and to say yes without thought. When we speak of sovereignty as manifest through the three temptations of materialism, world domination and celebrity I have noted the formation of this in a child begins early on. Particularly given more and more children are put into established settings earlier and earlier in life. Though much is done to encourage learning through play in the early years, from the reception stage of school being responsible to educate our children, much is done to reverse this gift or at worse kill it, robbing children of the implicit aptitude to question and to push and pull with life. All three of these transcendent evils indoctrinate our youth. Eventually, when the natural rites of passage come they are condemned to an adult life confirmed in passing out ceremonies, getting certified, qualified or graduating.

    This might sound extreme but I do increasingly think we are at war for the children to come. Post modernity opened our eyes to the gospel story again but in truth those of us born before this era are probably unable to fully disentangle ourselves from the sovereign conformity we have embraced. (If that’s the point) However we could look out for kids yet to emerge from their youth? The ‘Google’ set who were born beyond the postmodern vista.

    We need to grow more aware that sovereign control and its corruption of humanity begins in infancy and it is not long before our children are subcontracted to the states education, welfare and social services. Social media equally proselytises its message through all its various mediums, creating generation acronym from did, msn, fb, xbox, Dsi, Wii…etc. Marketing priests sell their goods to win hearts and minds over the next accessory, fashion statement or toy. All of these suggest the three transcendent evils are up and at it from the early years! Hope is not departed and hope is the undoubted antidote we must seek.

    My view is to make a homemade culture that can descend upward nurturing spirituality that is not absent of the gifts of innocence. My hope is this will revitalize and stimulate an alternative narrative to the gospel culture we currently know and therein the God we have designed through this normative order. Through this way we could discover something different and allow children of tomorrow to become adults without losing the gifts of youth that Jesus hinted should be at the heart of realizing the kingdom of God and adult spirituality “Unless you become like one of these, (children) you can never see the kingdom life….”

    Through the eyes of a child we can encounter a transcendent God of love transfigured through an incarnational life that climaxed on a tree. The way is thus opened to climb the tree of life and come home. This is a place of forever, not an arc to survive the storm or a temple to remember who we are, but a tree house where magic dust is sprinkled on our hearts and eyes and the view is resplendent, where every bush is burning, creation claps her hands, culture sings of love divine and humanity walks humbly through the seasons of time.

    We must consider giving ourselves for willing hearts, formed in Holy wonder, where the young will rise like the dew from the morning’s womb.

  2. wow … thanks Johnny, food for mind and soul

  3. Roger, are we not counting the more subversive but implicitly encouraged emperor worship previous to 15AD?

    This seems important to me for a few reasons, mostly because I have been re-reading Brueggemann’s Theology of the Book of Jeremiah, in which he talks a lot about Sovereignty and the nations. Thus, as we seek to understand the issue of your project in our present day reality – and how it has affected the Church in various contexts – which is the major theme of your project, but I’d be interested in the leitmotif of how it has affected the nations, or perhaps how the nations manipulate it. For instance, the consequences in democracratic nations, we do have nation-states who proclaim “One Nation, Under God” and “In God We Trust”, which officially may recogize their penultimate sovereignty, and yet their actions belie their proclamations, for they act almost with reference to these (or perhaps they subvert their penultimate sovereignty and grasp at ultimate sovereignty in thier actions).

    I’m just catching up with your project (and reading your first book…and looking forward to the next!), and I am really intrigued.

  4. Hi Stephen, it’s good to welcome you to the blog.

    I agree with you entirely that empires before Rome had identified emperor and deity and legitimated their authority in so doing. My point is that at the same time that this practice was coming to fulness in the Roman Empire Jesus was proclaiming a very different kingdom, confronting and reversing the practices of empire. On your second point, as you will see if you persist with my book, I am suggesting that the nation state is itself a child of empire. I hope this helps.

    It’s good to interact with you and I look forward to doing so more,

  5. Reflecting on the paragraph in your last post about the ‘resistance to the transcendent’ I am reminded of the work of Roy Clouser (College of New Jersey) on divinity beliefs, who visited Leeds a few years back. Clouser argues that any systematic belief – not just of a religious nature – that starts with an assumption is a ‘divinity belief,’ ie. a belief in something that everything else depends upon. It doesn’t matter whether the person is conscious of such a foundation or not, or knows what the foundation actually is, or how deeply buried under elaborate constructions it might be, it will be there. If the belief system is coherent, it must be built upon some presuppositional basis. So the atheist who regards reason as a starting point for his/her view of ‘reality’ is founding on a divinity belief, and therefore exercising faith every bit as much as the religious person who puts his faith in an invisible and immutable God. It makes no more sense and offers no more proof to suggest that this or any other foundational belief has ‘an unconditionally non-dependent existence’ (another way of defining of a divinity belief) and thus represents ultimate reality, than to say that God exists. It is, in fact, of exactly the same kind of faith. And that’s my point. What Clouser is saying is actually self evident, and there should be no partition between so-called religious and secular – except that the subsumption of transcendence by sovereignty has skewed the whole thing against ‘God and religion’, blinding the so-called secular thinker from the simple logic that reveals a transcendent foundation to their thinking and, indeed, their very life – and, of course, everybody else’s!

    From your concluding comments, you are beginning to unpack another dimension to this whole story. Not only is this intellectual blindness an inevitable outcome of the deep rooted interpenetration of church and empire, there is also a transcendent intelligence and purpose involved in this ‘blinding.’ I await your next post, Roger!

  6. With reference to the rejection of transcendent sovereignty by so-called secular thinkers, and more than a nod to previous discussion with respect to children, this week’s New Scientist makes interesting reading. It’s headline was ‘The God Issue: the surprising new science of religion’. It included (incredibly) an article by Justin Barrett of Fuller Seminary entitled ‘Born believers,’ which argues carefully and with substantial evidence that children have a natural propensity to believe in supernatural ‘agents,’ including gods. The article concludes that: ‘the way our minds solve problems generates a god-shaped conceptual space waiting to be filled by the details of the culture into which they are born’. Doesn’t that underline both the natural potential of young minds to recognise truth and their commensurate vulnerability to influence? The article and the New Scientist issue as a whole rejects (rightly) the influence of religion to mould young minds, but, beyond Barrett’s article, seems to miss the point that it is perhaps the narrow secular/atheist ‘input’ that stymies natural, spiritual child development.

    Barrett’s book, from which the article is drawn, was attacked by AC Grayling, not on its argument but on Barrett’s faith position. His excellent, ‘no holds barred’ reply in the Guardian is worth a read:

  7. okay, I’m going to give this a go.

    I’m a bit confused by your assertion that modernity has equalled an emphasis on the immanent, human and rational (however we define that, I guess). The question arises for me because from a feminist point of view modernity has been a problem precisely due to a disconnect from the human and material into the abstract world of Greek thinking. And this disconnect affects how women are treated and how nature is understood and treated. I can figure out why you made the statement, I’m just not totally comfortable with it. It is clear that modernity has been built on a number of myths, the idea of rationality is one of them. Just the other day I watched a great pbs-nova episode on the financial market collapse which asked the question of how do we relate to money. The answer, gained through new brain research, is very emotionally and not rationally at all. The high point of the program was to watch the economists at the Chicago school (the centre of rational economics) utterly and irrationally dismiss the new research as it conflicts with their own ‘rational’ and mathematical models. In other words, by their behaviour, they made a strong point for the fact that we humans tend towards emotional behaviour rather than rational. So, I think rationality has been a myth and a strong one but not necessarily reflective of real behaviours in modernity.

    I also confess that despite strong experiences with weird and unexplainable phenomena I struggle with the idea of transcendent evil. I suspect it is an emotional response to much nonsense taught to me in churches. I am having that kind of emotional response to almost anything to do with the church these days. At some point I hope to get beyond that and have a more rational response to your assertions!

    But I think my point stands. Feminists have demolished many of the myths accepted and promoted as modernity and perhaps that needs to be included in your critique.c.

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